Pour yourself a heavily caffeinated beverage and settle in because today were going to talk about grief theory. Just when you thought we were almost out of interesting topics.
Once upon a time (1969) a psychiatrist name Elisabeth Kubler Ross wrote the book ‘On Death and Dying’ which introduced the world to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The five stages of grief are at the basis of the ‘Kubler-Ross Model’, a theory based on Kubler-Ross’s experience and interviews with terminally ill patients.
Originally this model was applied to those facing the reality of their own death (the aforementioned terminally ill patients), but before long practitioners found the constructs of this neat and tidy model fit nicely with the analysis and treatment of grieving individuals. Since their introduction, the five stages of grief have become about as popular as any grief theory could ever hope, and they can be found in the mainstream media applied to anything from divorce to global markets.
Despite the fact that the stages are often refuted in academia, the ‘Kubler-Ross Model’ seems to be the grief model for the masses. It’s intuitive, easy to grasp, and easy to prescribe. And prescribed it is – by that old guy at the church coffee hour, Aunt Barb, and Jimmy who lives down the street.
In fact you may be here by way of a Google search prompted by your Aunt Barb who told you you’re stuck in the ‘Anger Stage’ (which only made you angrier). Thanks Aunt Barb!
I should probably tell you, if you’re waiting for me to explain the five stages I’m not going to. If you want a better understand of the five stages of grief you should go to David Kessler’s website grief.com. He and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross co-authored the book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. I’m fairly sure he can explain it a lot better than me.
You may be asking your computer screen, “then what the heck is this post about?” Well, I figure you’ve already heard about the model and many of you have already intuited how it should be applied. This happens all the time and unfortunately many people get it wrong and end up feeling confused and abnormal because their grief doesn’t follow the pattern. Before you decide that grief has literally made you crazy, there are a few things I think you should know.
1. It is just a theory:
There are many (many, many) grief theories; we just happen to hear about the five stages of grief so often those unfamiliar with grief models (i.e. pretty much everyone) tend to believe it’s the gold standard.
The five stages of grief are not absolute truth. Like all theory, it’s based on a hypothesis (an educated guess). There is a bit of research to support the theory, but there is also a bit of research to contradict the theory.
In reality, other grief models may fit your experience exponentially better than the ‘Kubler-Ross Model’. We plan to explain other grief models over the next few weeks (yay, it’s a series) so if you want exposure to alternative ways to interpret your experience, follow along.
At the end of the day, you may take the stages or leave them. Just please (please, please) don’t expect your grief to fall into a neat and easy pattern, formula, or timeline, and don’t think you’re abnormal or crazy if your grief doesn’t transition through the stages in an orderly fashion. It just doesn’t work that way.
2. It is not linear:
Grief.com (David Kessler’s website) notes that the stages, “are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.” Grief is not a one way tunnel, it’s more like a labyrinth.
It’s very easy to hear the stages rattled off and think they will all happen in a particular order, when in reality some of them don’t even need to happen at all. The stages are just tools, based on the experiences of many other grievers, to help you understand and identify how you feel. It completely normal to realize weeks after a death that you began at a different start point, passed over a step, or even moved backwards.
3. Stages may repeat:
As we established, the five stages of grief are not linear. A part of this means stages may repeat and you won’t necessarily be waving goodbye to ‘anger’ or ‘depression’ in your rearview mirror.
Again, these are tools to help identify and understand how your feeling so don’t fret if you feel like your taking two steps back. It’s common in grief to feel like you’re making progress one day only to get knocked on your derrière the next.
4. It is not all encompassing:
Grief is really complex. We detailed the wide range of emotions grievers deal with in our recent post ‘Grief Makes You Crazy’. You will feel 1 million things after a death, the five stages of grief talks about…well…five. Of course stages like ‘depression’ and ‘anger’ are vague and could encompass a whole range of feelings and emotions, but even still the stages don’t cover everything.
Don’t feel confused when you find yourself in regretsville and can’t find it on your five stages of grief map. Hint: make a U-turn at ‘acceptance’; and double back towards ‘anger’, it’s somewhere in there.
5. There is no end point: Analogies like ‘grief journey’ and ‘grief path’ give us the feeling there’s some finite end point to grief. The five stages leave you with a similar feeling – if I can just transition through these stages to ‘acceptance’ I will be at the end of my grief. ‘X’ marks the spot.
I am in no way saying you won’t ever feel better. You just won’t be pulling up to a specific destination, rather one day you’ll have a vague feeling that you’re in a place that’s ‘okay’. The theory will reach it’s end point, but your experience with grief won’t.
You don’t get to close the book on grief and forget the story. The story will stay with you and sometimes you’ll relive the sadness, anger, hurt, and longing contained within its pages. But your story will feel a little more colorful, a little more hopeful, and a little more optimistic about the future.
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