Five Things You Should Know About the ‘Five Stages of Grief’

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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March 28, 2017

14 responses on "Five Things You Should Know About the 'Five Stages of Grief'"

  1. The five stages as posited by Kubler-Ross were meant to be used as a helpful tool back in a time where there was NO easily accessible information about what people go through when they experience loss. Doctors would not talk to their patients about death and families that had moved beyond the model of multiple generations living and dying under one roof had lost the skills handed down by direct experience. (Much the same as we have lost the knowledge and ability to birth safely at home – (more safely than in a hospital). Terminally ill patients finally had a voice and their families had a guide to let them know that they were not crazy, or weird or bad for feeling the things they were feeling. Not too many people went to therapists back then. If they sought any counseling at all it was from the clergy who more than likely told them it was God’s will and shamed them for being angry or feeling anything other than faithfulness in God. Of course it has become widely used because it was easy to understand and easily accessible. AND it IS translatable to other loss situations. Nowhere was it ever stated that the stages were the only things you might feel or that they were linear and she always taught that you could be feeling multiple things at once. The main thing about knowing about the five stages is that it helps people know how to hold space for someone who is grieving or dying. For crying out loud, how many books have been written about baby care? Just because there is no way you can cover every scenario or symptom doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate to try to understand the basics. If there is a problem with the stages it is that people these days WANT, expect, even DEMAND a quick prescription for their distress. There is no tolerance for ambiguity or unanswered questions. It is not the fault of the stages theory or Kubler-Ross that the stages have been taught and interpreted concretely. It still remains the most easily understood and relatable guide out there. If people are taking them literally and not grasping the nebulous nature of grief and loss then they probably would benefit from therapy. But for the most part it remains an accurate guide for most uncomplicated loss situations. I’m tired of hearing Kubler-Ross dismissed. The medical and nursing professions, not to mention a generation or two of non-self-reflective people owe her a great debt of gratitude.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Hey Jane,

      Thanks for your comment. If you read the post hopefully you see that we don’t disagree with you. The five-stages were indeed ground breaking and their impact continues to be seen today. Regardless of intent or merit, though, the fact remains that the five-stages are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Everyone’s heard of them, yet they are far more complex than most people realize. That’s why we felt the need to write this post, to provide a little education about the nuances of the five stages.

      Although I do agree that there are many people out there who long for a quick fix to their grief, I am hesitant to agree that those who feel flummoxed by grief’s confusing nature need therapy. Everyone enters grief with their own unique set of assumptions and expectations about how grief will feel and how effectively they will cope. These expectations are, in some part, based on the attitudes of their broader culture and society and our society (generally speaking) encourages a neat and tidy grieving process. So it makes perfect sense that regardless of a person’s distress tolerance that days, weeks, and months after a loss they might say to themselves – “This was not what I expected, I’m not sure this is normal.”

      Eleano

  2. What about the sense of not wanting to move through the process? Of feeling the need and inevitability to stay in the grief because it’s all that’s left? Is there some theory or part of a theory that addresses this? I’m not in denial of what happened (most of the time, I think), but anytime I get a sense of “feeling okay,” I immediately want to return to not feeling okay because the okayness is too unsettling. Because I can at least bend my mind around not feeling okay.

  3. I think it important to also state that EKR never intended the ‘stages of grief’ to be used as a linear program or journey. It was a per peave to have it presented as such. She had it correct that the stages were not in a set order to be completed. She herself presented them as stages that were visited, revisited or skipped in no certain order with no certain end. She was a brave and compassionate woman that opened the door for so many of us.

  4. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out much.
    I hope to give something back and help others like you aided
    me.

  5. Hi, I just thought I would say how easy to understand and informative your blogs on grief are. I volunteer for a Bereavement charity in England as well as studying for a Counselling Diploma, and I like the lively way you have written about what I think is a fascinating subject, but unfortunately most of my fellow students don’t agree-they think it is depressing! Any chance of explaining Continuing Bonds by Klass and Silverman? Thanks for a great website.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Sally, thank you! I think your fellow students are depressing! =) Just kidding, I’m sure they’re lovely. I know not everyone feels comfortable with the topic of grief, but I think once they’ve had some first hand experience with it many start to feel a little differently. We will absolutely tackle a post on Continuing Bonds. We love taking requests.

      Eleanor

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Hey Sally,

      Yes, we take requests! Check out our latest post on ‘Continuing Bonds’ =)

      Eleanor

      • That’s brilliant, I am very impressed! I am studying for a Diploma in Counselling and we are near the end of our unit on bereavement which most students have disliked, but a handful of us are fans. Perhaps you would consider doing a post on Stroebe’s Dual Process Model too, that’s another one of my favourites?
        I am glad I came across your website, I have recommended it in class but like I said, bereavement isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
        Thank you,
        Sally.

  6. Great article, Eleanor. In my personal and professional experience with grief I have come to understand models and theories being just that: models and theories.
    Having said this, I often describe the different emotions and feelings experienced while grieving in circular fashion: The emotions/feelings come and go, at different length in time and with varying intensity.
    What shapes those experiences is our mental/emotional/spiritual meaning making process which changes over the time of being in the ‘grieving tumbler’.
    Grief is so personal and individual and so would the model need to be to fit: One for each person grieving.

  7. Nice, Eleanor! I always look at the fact that Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying – such groundbreaking work for the world to begin this conversation – and decades later On Grief and Grieving with David Kessler. Facing one’s own death in the original studies and then applying it to everything about loss is way too simple as you note. I do subscribe to the models of universality in grief, along with a heavy dose that the loss itself is individual. A holistic approach, using the varying models that resonate to the personal journey through grief, can only serve us all better in helping ourselves and supporting others along the way. Thanks for writing and sharing!

  8. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)April 29, 2013 at 1:06 pmReply

    Thank you, Eleanor, for helping to debunk the myth that grief occurs in neatly ordered stages. Seeing this decades-old theory touted so often in the popular media just sets my teeth on edge. So much research on bereavement has been done in the years since EKR published her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying (1969!) Do the journalists and writers who help to perpetuate this myth really think we’ve learned nothing new about grief in the last 45 years?!

    I look forward to the rest of the posts in your series on grief models!

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