The five stages of grief are a lie

April 12, 2022

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It's commonly assumed that when something bad happens to someone, we journey through five emotional stages in response. This view of grief has been so pervasive and sticky that plenty of 'well trained' doctors and psychologists think that this represents the 'true' process of grieving. Shame that it's wrong then.

This article's ideology: The five stages of grief were never supposed to be an orderly process, despite the common wisdom of many clinicians. Rather, anyone can experience any stage at any time, and the best support recognises this.

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Article Status: Complete (for now).

Even if you can't remember them all, I'm sure you've heard of the 5 stages of grief. What you almost certainly don't know is how they're supposed to work.

The five stages as they're commonly known

When something bad happens to someone, we journey through five emotional stages in response:

  1. Denial: at first people can't (or won't) believe the news.
  2. Anger: eventually they'll switch to rage, railing at the world and those around them for what has happened.
  3. Bargaining: when the anger cools, people tend to try and avoid the truth by trying to bargain the grief away, asking for some implausible trade to make the pain go away.
  4. Depression: when the crazy bargains never eventuate, people begin to despair and fall into a depression.
  5. Acceptance: finally, depression gives way to a more sanguine view---embracing the event and moving forward.

How many TV episodes based their plot around this linear set of stages? Neat and discrete. This view of grief has been so pervasive and sticky that plenty of 'well trained' doctors and psychologists think that this represents the 'true' process of grieving. Whether one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or mourning the death of a loved one, if one deviates from this path, many health professionals will do all they can to get you back on track. You wouldn't want to screw up the grieving process would you?

Shame that it's wrong then

Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who worked a great deal with the terminally ill. In her book On Death and Dying, she described these five reactions to grief based on her observations. But at no time did she outline a specific structure or process for these actions. Merely that people dealing with a terminal diagnosis may experience one or more of these emotional reactions at any time. Sometimes experiencing them simultaneously or perhaps not at all.

In fact, more recently, Dr Kübler-Ross noted that she regretted her original book, highlighting people's misunderstanding of her original observations. This might explain why there's no convincing empirical evidence to support her non-model.

It might also explain why anyone you've ever known to go through a period of grieving didn't clearly follow Dr Kübler-Ross' plan. Fact is, grief is the emotion we feel when something incomparably awful happens to us. A quick spot check should have anyone suspicious that such a deep and intense emotion would follow such a neat and ordered process. It's one of the fundamental flaws of the scientific method. Our search to understand the world better often leads us to create a structure for that understanding, even if no such structure exists.

So next time you or someone you know suffers an awful loss, don't feel the need to force the experience into a box. Anyone expecting you to follow the five stages of grief probably doesn't know what they're talking about. A better way to handle it would be to figure out what you're feeling now and reaching out for the support you need in the moment. Anger requires one type of help. Depression another. And none of that help should have a focus on moving you into the next 'stage'. Just solving whatever it is that you're feeling now.

This article's ideology

Ideology: The five stages of grief were never supposed to be an orderly process, despite the common wisdom of many clinicians. Rather, anyone can experience any stage at any time, and the best support recognises this.

Summary:
Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief are often thought of as an ordered journey: First denial (it's not happening/real), then anger (it's not fair), then bargaining (surely we can change it), then depression (there's no hope), and finally acceptance (moving forward with truth). The advice of many well-meaning friends and clinicians will be designed to try to 'move' people along this journey. But Kubler-Ross never imagined it to be orderly. Rather people may experience one or more of these emotional reactions at any time, or not at all. Indeed, it's quite unlikely that any intense emotion will follow a neat and ordered process. Our need to understand the world better often leads us to create structure for what unfolds, even if no such structure exists. A better way to handle such pain would be to figure out what you're feeling now and reach out for the support you need, not fit yourself into some idea of what it should be like.

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