A Grief Support Blog

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

The Stages of Grief

This is the first of six blogs that we will be doing on this subject. It is something that we hear about all the time. Each blog will look at one of these five "stages."

Some years ago, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, spent a great deal of her career working with the dying and was a pioneer in the field of hospice. In her 1969 book, "On Death and Dying," she wrote that there were five phases very common to people dealing with their impending mortality. They were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She found that while some went through these stages, in dealing with their impending death, in that order, others bounced back and forth between them. It is an excellent study concerning those who are dying and one of the first meaningful studies dealing with any element of grief.

Unfortunately, a large number of people overlook that she was writing about grief strictly from the standpoint of those who were facing their own death. The "five stage of grief" have been used, and sometimes abused, by a variety of people, who have taken her work completely out of the original context. It is not at all unusual to hear them used to describe what a griever experiences after the death of a loved one, or any other significant emotional loss.

Far more has been put forth on this subject. Prior to her work in this area, John Bowlby and Colin Parkes suggested that there were four phases of grieving. A Yale study, completed in 2007, relabeled her phases as disbelief, yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance, and suggested that failure to complete the grieving process in six months might indicate problems that would benefit from professional intervention. There has been research disproving the necessity of the first phase and indicating that depression is not inevitable in the grief experiences by those dealing with an emotional loss. The American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 indicates that a Major Depressive Disorder, including bereavement, can be diagnosed for situations lasting over two weeks.

Clearly, there has been a lot of discussion on this topic. The problem, however, comes when people assume that grievers must experience Kübler-Ross' five phases in the order she listed, or worse yet, try to force them into doing so. These "five stages" or grief stages have become something often forced on grievers, that can lead to a great deal of confusion.

We, at The Grief Recovery Institute, firmly believe that to tell grievers they "must" go through these stages serves no purpose and does nothing to help in their emotional recovery. It would be great if we could fit all grievers into these five boxes, so we would know how to deal with them, but it does not work that way. Each person is different. Each loss is different. Grief is emotional, not intellectual. The Grief Recovery Method is founded not on putting people in a convenient box, but rather on helping them discover what is incomplete and unfinished in each individual relationship, so that they can take the necessary action to deal with that unfinished business on an emotional level.  The Method is about educating people in taking action, rather than simply labeling them.

When I was in mortuary school, I was taught that the families I met with had to go through the five stages of grief. When my wife, a nurse, had a co-worker killed in an accident, the licensed professional counselor, who was brought in to provide support, told everyone that they had to go through the five stages of grief. Funeral directors and nurses are most often the "first responders" in helping grievers after a death. Keep in mind that every major change in life brings with it elements of grief, and yet these five stages of grief are forced on people no matter the loss.

Over the next five editions of this blog, we will look at how placing these expectations on grievers is an enormous disservice and does nothing to help them deal with the emotional pain of loss. We will look at how telling people they must experience an arbitrary stage tends to create more problems, rather than helping them through the grieving process.


While you may follow this link to another article published on this in the past, you will find that this series approaches the stages of grief from a different perspective.  Stages of Grief: The Myth






I appreciate the fact that research on the "stages" has been well documented here. If you are professionally trained as a CGRS, LPC or a NCC, counseling tracks do not focus on these stages and timelines suggested by Kubler-Ross. It is out of date, but the labels of the stages can be helpful to the griever, knowing that the whole body is going through grief without a choice. Grief is a natural response and the level of relationship to the deceased is the key indicator to the level of depth that the griever experiences; so I have learned over my 8 years experience as a bereavement counselor with hospice. That experience basically has opened my eyes to the need to focus on and experience the symptoms of these stages, particularly anger, depression and guilt and how to alleviate these symptoms. What makes them less acute is knowing they are part of the experience of grief ... especially when they are so strong and overwhelming to the griever. I do hope that acknowledging the symptoms which are physical, emotional, mental and behavioral will be complimentary to the process and that providing some practical suggestions for lessening these overwhelming emotions is what is in order. I have to say that experiencing grief symptoms is part of the process of letting go. Grief has to come out and not be held in. It's OK to cry, wail, or moan to express the pain of grief. Our society has taught us to hold it in and not to express it. I have to say third world countries have it right, I also have to say that the environment presents reminders of the deceased that evoke emotions and that the symbolic dates, such as anniversaries, birthdays, seasons, and holidays are the triggers for emotions in the first year, and continue for years in a lessening degree of emotion, as we begin the journey in acceptance.
Charlotte - I truly enjoyed reading your comments. When people are working with a grief professional, they are normally informed that these phases or stages are not necessary processed in order and that some of them are not part of the grieving process at all, given their particular situation. Our concern is for the griever, who is dealing with any of the more than 40 different loss that can lead to grief, believing that they must go through each of these stages in the order listed, to have any hope of recovery. The concept of these so called stages has become so establish in our culture that grievers are often told about them by well meaning friends who are trying to provide assistance. It is then, without a professional to explain these labels, that confusion can set in. It is often in these situations where a griever begins to believe that the must accept that they will be in misery forever and that there is no hope of a true recovery of any kind. Certainly, certain dates and holidays may still have moments that lead to sadness, but if the griever is willing to take action with those things they wish had been different, better or more in that relationship, they can lessen the emotional impact. I sincerely hope that you will check out what the Grief Recovery Method has to offer bother grievers and those that are assisting them. There are a large number of aftercare providers in Hospice who have found them to be a very positive addition to the services they provide.

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