That sticky ‘stage theory’ of grief
By Leanne Billiau
“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.”
Those of us who are passionate about hospice admire the ground-breaking work of Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She was part of the hospice movement and her work with the dying put the topics of death and grief on the table for many. Even though she studied people who were dying and the emotional impact of getting that kind of traumatic news, her theory is prevalent in pop culture as “The Five Stages of Grief”.
It is in our nature to try and make sense of our world. We attempt to create order out of chaos, and the world can feel very chaotic and out of control for those who are grieving. This desire to create order leads us to want to categorize and structure even our normal, natural, emotional response to loss.
It is understandable, then, why so many people have grasped onto the well known “Five Stages of Grief” theory. However, one of the most significant changes in the area of grief and loss in recent years is the move away from using Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief model. The reasons for this are many.
While it can be a tool that can help frame and identify the emotions we may be feeling, one of the problems is that it doesn’t fit everyone’s experience. I have seen countless bereaved people who come in feeling that something is wrong with them or that they are not grieving as they should because “I haven’t gotten angry”, “I skipped over denial”, or “I made it to acceptance, but now I slipped back into depression”. Anyone who has felt the pain of grief knows there are enough “shoulds” to go around already.
The fact is that not everyone does feel angry or depressed and the stage theory can make people feel guilty that they are not feeling what they think they should feel. It can give people who are grieving and those that love them unrealistic expectations, further complicating an already complex emotional process.
Having an order of events can give us an illusion of control over the uncontrollable. The word “stage” itself implies not only a certain fixed pattern, but also an end point. There is a myth that after a period of time, one should “get over” their grief, but this is not a process with a defined end point. It is rather a continued adjustment to our new world without the person we loved. The reality is that grief is a highly individualized and personal process. No two people will ever grieve in exactly the same way nor will the same individual grieve two losses exactly the same.
The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. No prescribed formula is going to apply to every single person, so try to ignore the “shoulds” and follow your own natural process. The goal is really to experience and express your grief in the style that is most natural to you. From doing this work, I know that we all really do possess the strength and resilience to get through even the deepest pain. When we allow ourselves to feel that pain, we can begin to find our way through it.