A Grief Support Blog

This blog will allow you the opportunity to acquire both support and guidance after experiencing a significant loss.

Why we don't agree with the 5 stages of grief

Many years ago Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book entitled On Death and Dying. The book identified five stages that a dying person goes through when they are told that they have a terminal illness. Those stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For many years, in the absence of any other helpful material, well-meaning people incorrectly assigned those same stages to the grief that follows a death or loss. They simply called them the 5 stages of grief.  Although a griever might experience some or all of those feeling stages, it is not a correct or helpful basis for dealing with the conflicting feelings caused by loss.

The Stages of Grief.jpg Are there really 5 stages of grief?

It is our experience that given ideas on how to respond, grievers will cater their feelings to the ideas presented to them. After all, a griever is often in a very suggestible condition; dazed, numb, walking in quicksand. It is often suggested to grievers that they are in denial. In all of our years of experience, working with tens of thousands of grievers, we have rarely met anyone in denial that a loss has occurred. They say "Since my mom died, I have had a hard time." There is no denial in that comment. There is a very clear acknowledgment that there has been a death. If we start with an incorrect premise, we are probably going to wind up very far away from the truth.

What about anger? Often when a death has occurred there is no anger at all. For example, my aged grandmother, with whom I had a wonderful relationship got ill and died. Blessedly, it happened pretty quickly, so she did not suffer very much. I am pleased about that. Fortunately, I had just spent some time with her and we had reminisced and had told each other how much we cared about each other. I am very happy about that. There was a funeral ceremony that created a truly accurate memory picture of her, and many people came and talked about her. I loved that. At the funeral a helpful friend reminded me to say any last things to her and then say goodbye, and I did, and I'm glad. I notice from time to time that I am sad when I think of her or when I am reminded of her. And I notice, particularly around the holidays, that I miss her. And I am aware that I have this wonderful memory of my relationship with this incredible woman who was my grandma, and I miss her. And, I am not angry.

Although that is a true story about grandma, it could be a different story and create different feelings. If I had not been able to get to see her and talk to her before she died, I might have been angry at the circumstances that prevented that. If she and I had not gotten along so well, I might have been angry that she died before we had a chance to repair any damage. If those things were true, I would definitely need to include the sense of anger that would attend the communication of any unfinished emotional business, so I could say goodbye.

 

 

Unresolved grief is almost always about undelivered communications of an emotional nature.

There are a whole host of feelings that may be attached to those unsaid things. Happiness, sadness, love, fear, anger, relief, and compassion are just some of the feelings that a griever might experience. We do not need to categorize, analyze, or explain those feelings. We do need to learn how to communicate them and then say goodbye to the relationship that has ended.

It is most important to understand that there are no absolutes. There are no definitive stages or time zones for grieving. It is usually helpful to attach feeling value to the undelivered communications that keep you incomplete. Attaching feelings does not have to be histrionic or dramatic, it does not even require tears. It merely needs to be heartfelt, sincere, and honest.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. Grief is emotional, not intellectual. Rather than defining stages of grief which could easily confuse a griever, we prefer to help each griever find their own truthful expression of the thoughts and feelings that may be keeping them from participating in their own lives. We all bring different and varying beliefs to the losses that occur in our lives, therefore we will each perceive and feel differently about each loss.

QUESTION: Is there some confusion between anger and fear as they relate to The Grief Recovery Method?

ANSWER: A primary feeling response to loss is fear. "How will I get along without him/her?" Anger is one of the most common ways we express our fear. Our society taught us to be afraid of our sad feelings, it also taught us to be afraid of being afraid. We are willing to say "I am angry, rather than saying "it was scary." It is possible to create an illusion of completion by focusing on the expression of anger. Usually anger is not the only undelivered feeling relating to unresolved grief.

For additional information on the Stages of Grief, we suggest the following articles:

Debunking the Five Stages of Grief

Stages of Grief the Myth

Comments

I have a different view on the matter of anger as a grief process. Only recently I attended a funeral service and witnessed a young man (son of the deceased) in a fit of anger, smash the instrument he was playing. I have seen relatives folding their fists at each other and still others lashing out at the announcement of the death and at time attacking the person bringing the news. I have studied grief and I have seen displays of all the steps identified by Kobler. In reading Kobler's account in the book on Death and Dying she spoke mainly of the process experienced by the dying or terminally ill person. To the survivors, she spoke of the transition from walking through the illness period with their loved one to the occurance of death. It is noteworthy state that what was carefully and pointedly stated in her pronouncement through those pages was that the process doesn't follow a set step or time duration but generally represents the various stages one may experience at any given point in the process. She was also careful to note that this may not be the case with all grieving persons.

Hi Nicole,


Thanks for your comments. We’ve also observed people demonstrating anger in the aftermath of the death of someone meaningful to them, and yes, even at a funeral. Almost without exception, when we have talked to “angry” people, we’ve discovered that their anger was about something that had or hadn’t happened between them and the person who died, or quite often with other family members, rather than being a stage. In the latter situation, it is often about money and property. But we’ve also met and talked to many thousands of people who do not have a trace of anger related to the person who died, nor to any family members or friends. One of the primary points we were making in the Stages article is that if something truly is a “stage” it must happen every time. It cannot be arbitrary and only happen sometimes. And our reason for making that point so strongly was to protect grieving people from being cast under an idea that may not be truthful about them or helpful to them.

Wow! I just learned a ton!

I just ordered the book and am looking forward to reading it. My boyfriend passed away (tomorrow will be a month) and I am most definitely angry. For me, it isn't because of anything surrounding the death in terms of unresolved disagreements or money or property. For me I am angry at the unfairness of this young 44 yr old man dying unexpectedly of a heart attack just at the time we were about to move in together and get married. I can totally understand that if the circumstance (like the grandmother scenario) is such that the person has made peace with the death and said goodbye or was prepared for the loss, the absence of anger can be normal. But if the circumstances feels extremely unfair, I can see (like in my own case) how anger can definitely be part of the grieving process.

Dear Robin,


Thanks for your note. Of course we’re saddened to hear of the sudden death of your boyfriend.


Your note, in many ways, makes the point we were making in the article debunking the alleged stages. Yes, it makes sense for you to be angry with the “unfairness” of it all [as you say], whereas someone in a different set of circumstance might not feel any anger at all.


That’s the reason we don’t agree with the concept of stages or even the use of the phrase “grief process.” For something to happen in stages, or as a process, it must happen the same every time, not only at certain times and in certain ways depending on circumstances.


When we were first working on the Stages article we were going to use the transformation that eventually yields a butterfly, wherein the pupal stage follows the larval stage and precedes adulthood (imago stage). We said that the transforming insect cannot skip one of the stages and arrive at adulthood. It’s an all or nothing process.


On the other hand, grief is totally unique and individual. Grief Recovery, though it follows a set of actions, is never the same from one person to another – thus no stages and no process.


Big hugs to you,


Russell and John

Thank you for the important work you are doing with grief recovery.

First, On Death and Dying was never a study of grief and bereavement. It was a discussion of some key emotional reactions to the experience of the dying. Yes, grief was a part of that experience, but it was not the totality of the experience.

Secondly, the so-called “stage theory” that you will read in this book is openly described and discussed as a heuristic device. (((/hjᵿˈrɪstᵻk/; Ancient Greek: εὑρίσκω, "find" or "discover"), any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals." as defined by Wikipedia.) In other words, these stages are merely a set of categories artificially isolated and separately described so that the author can discuss each of these experiences more clearly and simply. The careful reader will note Kübler-Ross’s own repeated warnings that many of these “stages” overlap, occur together, or even that some reactions are missed altogether. To emphasize this conditional way of taking about stages, the word “stages” was even put in inverted commas to emphasize their tentative nature in the only diagrammatic representation of these ideas in the book.

Thirdly, many of the “stages” of the dying described in the book have been subsequently simplified and publicly caricatured beyond recognition.

Fourthly, and rather inexplicably, On Death and Dying has regularly been mistakenly and mischievously construed as a research study. It is a popular book of description, observation, and reflection based upon a series of dialogues with dying people. The participants were not invited to be part of a research project but instead asked to talk about their experience to assist health professionals to understand their needs better.

However, the central message of On Death and Dying is the importance of listening to what the dying have to tell us about their needs. Dr. Kübler-Ross has noted some of the repeated patterns of the emotional response of hope but also denial, of acceptance but often with conditions. She has offered us words or labels to describe these patterns of response to help us summarize them….”

Please reference:
http://www.ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief/

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