The Stages Of Grief: A Useful Guide, or Misapplied Theory?
The world’s most popular theory of grief has been heavily criticized. But that doesn’t mean it lacks value.
Humans are burdened with an innate yearning to know. On many levels, this has propelled humanity forward from the birth of civilization, in order to reach new horizons, develop technologies, and find novel solutions to life’s problems. But the yearning to know has one setback: sometimes, we seek the comfort of knowledge to escape the discomfort of uncertainty. And no experience in life is more uncertain than grief.
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In the void left by losing someone you love, it’s normal to try and make sense of the pain. Whilst knowledge is never a true escape from matters of the heart — feelings have to be felt — it can offer relief by giving a context for the magnitude of what you feel. The stages of grief is one particular model that articulates the grief process.
This isn’t a prescription or a definitive path, but it does accurately cover universal qualities of grief that the majority of people will experience, to varying degrees. If you’re grieving, or know someone grieving, the grief stages give you a better grasp, to find some order in the chaos, to get a sense of where you are on the journey.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
It’s likely you’ve heard of the stages of grief at some point. The theory has become a part of pop psychology and wider culture since its conception in 1969 by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross developed her theory based on terminally ill patients, who were confronted by their impending death. Eventually, the Kübler-Ross model was expanded to other forms of grief.
When considering grief, the most common thing to consider is the death of a loved one, although there are many forms. Disenfranchised grief, for example, covers many facets of grief, from the change in relationship status, the loss of an imagined future due to injury and illness, and more. Although the book contained over 10 stages, the five below are most commonly referenced:
- Denial: when confronted with a loss that is deeply upsetting, it’s natural to experience the defense mechanism of denial. Rather than “face the facts,” the first stage for many people is to ignore reality, and pretend it isn’t happening, in order to avoid the consequential pain and adjustment.
- Anger: as people slowly start to adjust to reality, they may transition into anger. With so much emotional pain on the horizon, the temptation is to lash out, to find someone to blame. With terminal patients, this may include blaming healthcare providers or looking for causes. It may also manifest as a sense of existential anger towards life itself.
- Bargaining: there must be a way out, surely? At this point the solutions-based mind goes on overdrive, attempting to play God by finding ways to “bargain” with reality. This is common after breakups, where someone will start to try and find ways for the relationship to continue, even if clearly not possible. With bereavement, it’s common for people to bargain with “God” in order to bring their loved ones back.
- Depression: as reality sinks in, all sense of hope and optimism drains from the person. This is different from healthy sadness, a necessary part of the process. Depression is the lack of feeling, a complete withdrawal, from others, from life, from things you once enjoyed.
- Acceptance: said to be the indication of the “end” of the grief cycle, acceptance is a point of making peace with reality. Anger, bargaining, denial, and depression subside, emotions settle, and the person has a more resourceful and grounded outlook. That includes terminally ill patients, many of whom enter death in a calm state of mind.
How Long Do the Stages Last?
Grief is unique to each individual. Returning to the yearning to know, when experiencing grief, it can be tempting to want a timeline. In some way, this can become a part of the bargaining process — “I can handle this pain, as long as I know it’ll stop.” The path is different for everyone, as is the amount of time each stage lasts. In the words of Kübler-Ross:
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”Kübler-Ross
There’s a reason the final stage is acceptance. That includes accepting the way life has changed since the loss and the ways in which you adjust, and live, even if that grief stays with you, in its own way. But this is a utopia, a place to reach where everything will be okay, or something to attain to “complete” grief. It doesn’t work that way. And that’s a good thing. It means the people you love will stay with you, and your heart will grow through heartbreak.
Do the Stages of Grief Happen in Order?
If there’s no possible timeline, what about an order? In 2004, a year after Kübler-Ross had died, On Grief and Grieving was released, co-authored by David Kessler. The book updated and adapted the model, whilst addressing common misconceptions about the theory, which had expanded beyond its original conception. Kessler notes that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages,” and that “there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.” He adds:
“They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief ‘s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is as unique as you are.”David Kessler
So, the stages themselves are fluid and don’t have a timeline. By now you might be getting a sense of the model’s flaws, and you’re not alone. Despite its popularity, many people have criticized Kübler-Ross’ model, for a number of different reasons.
Criticisms of the Stages of Grief
McGill University presents a thorough overview of the lack of evidence-based support for the grief stages. Multiple studies have found that there doesn’t appear to be a “normal” range of grief, questioning the validity of the model itself. In the article, It’s Time to Let The Five Stages of Grief Die, Ada McVean B.Sc. argues that “Kübler-Ross saw many patients and gathered many anecdotes, and then used them to create a scientific model that simply is not based on good evidence.”
A big criticism is the data upon which the framework was built, developed from case studies of people approaching death. Kübler-Ross’ intention was to cultivate more care and compassion for terminally ill patients, who she viewed as being overlooked and neglected. To some extent, it’s unfair to apportion blame to her, but instead to question how widely adapted the model has become, especially considering many alternatives exist.
And here’s the biggest issue: when a model such as the stages of grief becomes commonly known, it can lead people into a comparison trap. Rather than attempt to understand their unique, personal experience, they begin to relate their experiences to the model, seeing how well they “fit” with normal grieving, which can create additional shame or guilt, especially for those who experience a prolonged grieving process. How, then, do you relate to the stages of grief? Are they useful? Or is it time to find a different model?
How to Apply the Stages of Grief
The stages of grief were designed to better support people facing their own death. Over the decades since, it has expanded to apply to all forms of grief, has become hugely popular despite its flaws, and remains misunderstood. Can a model be valid if it’s acknowledged that the stages are loose and flexible and that everyone’s journey is unique?
Above all else, the stages of grief are valid as a reminder. They’re a reminder that part of being human, and going through loss, is unique. But they’re also a reminder that this uniqueness is universal. All of us experience our blend of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. No matter where we’re at in our own path of healing, there is cause for compassion and kindness, to meet yourself where you’re at, and to avoid judgment.
The stages of grief offer reassurance; many have tread the path before and felt pain difficult to feel, believing they’d be consumed, but made it through. Others have found gentle acceptance of a fate impossible to escape. All of this is a reminder that grief is a journey, not something to resolve, not something to fix, something hard to describe, something only understood by being present to it. It comes in many flavors, and all are “normal.”
There are no models to live up to, no right way to grieve. If you’re hurt now, know that things will get better, and trust in your heart’s ability to heal. If you know someone hurting, support them as best you can, be empathetic and forgiving, know that the journey is wild and unpredictable but also teaching, an opportunity to open the heart if allowed to do so, to accept the bitter beauty of the impermanent nature of life, and the pain of losing something once loved, but knowing love and loss is the better option, always.