What you really need to know about grieving stages is that, for the most part, they are a myth. It's easiest if we establish that from the get-go. To be specific, grief theories involving grief stages exist. But it is not true that individuals should expect to experience the uniform, categorical, or linear grief they describe.
Though there are common experiences that serve as the basis of grief theories that involve grieving stages, phases, etc., you may or may not relate to these things yourself. Patterns observed among grieving people are, in many ways, random and don't allow us to predict with any degree of certainty what anyone else will experience. There are too many factors involved.
You are grieving a specific loss, and you, yourself, are a very unique person. It's inconceivable that anyone could know exactly what you've been through or tell you exactly what will come next.
If there are no grieving stages, then why do so many people think they exist?
In the 20th century, people working in grief found these categorical approaches helpful in describing and discussing grief. As you can see in the chart below, "grief work" gave way to decades of models involving stages, processes, and tasks. This approach to grief theory prevailed until the 1990s when a few models were introduced that made more space for grief's unique nature, secondary losses and change, and the wide range of emotional and cognitive experiences considered "normal."
Now, I'm not trying to say that there's nothing helpful to glean from almost a century of grief theory. On the contrary, these theories are based on much thought, observation, and sometimes research. One can find plenty of truth and usefulness within them, especially if you understand their nuances.
However, grieving people need to know these models are not predictive or prescriptive. Instead, they are theoretical, and no single theory will likely ever be able to describe exactly what you will experience after loss. If you are grieving and interested in these theories, by all means, check them out. But we suggest doing so with the intent to keep what works and to take the rest with a grain of salt.
"Everyone can master a grief but he that has it". -- William Shakespeare
I'm not trying put down anyone's desire to understand, master, or lessen the pain of grief. As grieving people, I think the inclination to analyze and understand your experience makes sense.
Very few of us would opt to embark on such a frightening journey without a map if given the choice. Most of us would find reassurance in the possibility of predicting what could happen or knowing the right moves to make. For many individuals, this is why the idea of grieving stages feels so desirable. It's comforting to think such an overwhelming experience can be simplified or predictable.
As advocates for grief psycho-education, we're fully on board with learning more about grief. But unfortunately when it comes to grieving stages, the focus is often on unlearning the assumptions and expectations that stem from these types of theories.
The cost of misconceptions about grieving stages
Grief and loss professionals have been working to change ideas about grief being patterned, categorical, finite, or linear for decades. Helping individuals recognize that grief is incredibly unique depending on the person, their loss, and the context in which they live trumps any grief theory. But society is slow to adopt these ideas.
Understandably, people tend to only pay attention to misconceptions about grief once they are in the thick of it themselves. Grief is one of those things you can only fully "get" once you've experienced it. And it is only then that many realize their assumptions were wrong.
When someone realizes amidst their grief that their expectations do not match reality, they can come to two different conclusions. In the best-case scenario, they allow for the possibility that their assumptions about grief were wrong and accept their responses as a normal part of the experience. The worst-case scenario, which is the scenario that is most harmful, is that they come to believe they are somehow abnormal or dysfunctional because their grief doesn't follow an expected pattern.
Grieving stages in society and the need for a different way of thinking
It seems ironic how hard people work to cram grief into things like grieving stages, phases, tasks, etc, when you consider that grief ranks up there as one of the most complex experiences that almost every human will experience in their lifetime.
I liken grief to another complex and universal human experience--love. Both are things that most people will experience in their lifetime. Love and grief can both be simple yet also incredibly nuanced and layered. They are both experiences involving many emotions, thoughts, and experiences. And both can feel confusing and mysterious, even though they are intrinsically human, existing within and emanating from us.
Yet, despite their similarities, we as a society treat these experiences quite differently. Love is generally considered net positive, so we celebrate it and are happy to let it exist (as we should). Though I'll concede many have tried to describe, categorize, and master love, we're generally willing to accept its quirks and mysteries.
Grief, on the other hand, is considered a negative state. It involves pain, despair, unhappiness, depression, and (gasp!) sometimes a lack of "normal" and productive behavior. It feels terrible, so people treat it like something that should be controlled, corralled, cured, and eliminated.
But when you come to know grief, you start to see that it involves many unexpected thoughts and emotions. Though it may seem entirely negative at face value, it often involves more positive things like warm memories and connections as well.
That said, I will concede grief exists mostly on the painful end of the human-experience continuum, so it makes sense to want to find ways to help ease the pain. However, if we recognize that (1) it's not all bad, (2) significant loss stays with us forever, and (3) we're likely to experience new losses throughout our entire lifetime, doesn't it make sense that we should get better at allowing the experience of grief to ebb, flow, and exist?