In the past, we explored the 5 Stages of Grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, which is often used as the point of reference for discussing grief and the grieving process. However, this approach to grief is increasingly acknowledged as too rigid when addressing such a diverse and individual emotional experience. So let’s revisit the 5 Stages of grief, and take a closer look at the ways it might be helpful to think outside of the box when discussing your grief or the grief of someone close to you.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Grief is an emotion that we will all experience at some stage in our lives. Breaking up with a romantic partner, experiencing an unexpected career change, or the loss of a loved one all have the potential to bring on deep feelings of sadness and grief. Indeed, just as the events that inspire grief are diverse, so too are the ways that it is felt.
In her book On Death and Dying (1969), Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the 5 Stages of Grief. Inspired by her work with terminally ill patients at the University of Chicago medical school, Kübler-Ross combined interviews, independent research, and the results of a series of seminars to serve as the foundation of her book. The stages are the following:
- Denial: the period of temporary shock when first confronted with a deeply upsetting or traumatic piece of news or event.
- Anger: towards others, oneself, God, or whoever one might identify as responsible for your suffering.
- Bargaining: a brief stage usually occurring between oneself and whoever one sees as responsible for your suffering.
- Depression: the period of mourning for loss with feelings of despair and sadness.
- Acceptance: not to be confused with a “happy stage,” but rather an acceptance of one’s circumstances.
Kübler-Ross is careful to note that these stages are by no means a complete list of all possible emotions experienced when grieving, and that they may occur in varying orders. Still, she proposes this as the common “guide” to the overall grieving process, which has been more or less adhered to since its publication.
A patient’s environment can have a great affect on their attitudes towards death.
The 5 Stages of Grief are Wrong, Here’s Why
In his well known critique of Kübler- Ross’ model, Baxter Jennings argues that the 5 Stages does not adequately address the personal dimension of grief. Indeed, Jennings believes that this model doesn’t take into account the ways in which one’s environment may or may not impact the manner in which grief is both experienced and expressed. “If patients are surrounded by positive experiences,” Jennings explains, “they will experience things differently from how they would if they were surrounded by negatives.” Essentially, Jennings points out that a patient’s environment can have a great affect on their attitudes towards death.
Another important critique of the 5 Stages model is present by George Bonanno. In his book The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss (2009), the professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University argues that the reactions of those who experience grief and trauma are influenced greatly by what he calls “natural resilience”. That people are resilient even when facing extreme stressors or losses, contradicts the 5 Stages of grief model. Many resilient people show no grief, and therefore have no stages of grief to pass through. Bonanno’s research argues that the absence of grief or trauma symptoms can, in fact, be a healthy outcome. However this has often been treated as something to be feared by therapists and researchers alike.
That people are resilient even when facing extreme stressors or losses, contradicts the 5 Stages model of grief.
Looking at these critiques of Kübler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief model raises some important questions. Most significantly is whether or not such an approach to grief is applicable to everyone. When grief is such an individually felt emotion, and the process of grieving so unique to each person, is it helpful to try and apply the 5 Stages to your own experience of loss? Or the experience of someone you know and care about? The research of Bonanno and Jennings says “perhaps not”.
No matter the model, remember that grief and the physical and emotional symptoms that come with it are real. There are many resources available to help you or a loved one during these difficult periods and no matter how you cope, grief has no time limit, no set direction and is unique to your experience. The 5 stages of grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is still very useful, but it might be time to expand our understanding.