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That sticky ‘stage theory’ of grief

That sticky stage of grief

By Leanne Billiau

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.”
-William Shakespeare

This week we re-post one of the most talked-about posts from the Caring with Confidence archives. 

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.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Unfortunately, as a culture we latched onto and misunderstood Elisbeth’s work in this regard. She was talking about aspects of grief, not a progression of stages and was very frustrated alter in life as people tried to make into something more orderly than what it as.

    March 11, 2013
    • Amen, Peggy! I’m always sad to see her incredible work misunderstood.

      March 11, 2013
      • Peggy and Heather, I could not agree more. My hope is that this kind of discussion will help to clear up some of the misunderstandings people have about her work. Thank you for your comments and thanks for following Caring with Confidence.

        March 12, 2013
  2. I think this is a very important article for both those who grieve, and those who respond to those who grieve. It terrifies me that some bystanders may say to the grieving person, “But that was so many months ago – you’re still grieving?!” or words to that effect. When we consider how individual each of us is, it makes sense that our grieving experiences will be individual as well. And quite frankly, I think the word “should” needs to be removed from the dictionary AND our vocabulary – for so very many reasons.

    March 11, 2013
    • Irene, Sadly, many grieving people do get the message that they are somehow “not doing it right” when in fact there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I agree that “should” is a very loaded word. It often gets us into trouble and I wish we “could” remove it from our vocabulary – and our culture. Thank you for commenting and thanks for following Caring with Confidence.

      March 12, 2013
      • You’re most welcome. I give great credit to your website because the topics covered – and the manner in which they are covered – are top rate.

        March 12, 2013

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