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