Grief does not happen in 5 stages

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: Julia D’Addurno, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying)

Grief is a multifaceted response to theloss of something significant, and is a universal experience that everyone, at some point in their life, will encounter.

Grief and the emotions associated with it, are normal and appropriate reactions to losing a significant part of our lives, whether this is the death of a loved one, a breakup or divorce, loss of a job or even a loss of an opportunity.  

While many people experience these emotions, grief is complicated, and as individual and unique as the person experiencing it.  Our culture commonly recognizes grief as a process that occurs in various stages:

  1. denial,
  2. anger,
  3. bargaining,
  4. depression and
  5. acceptance.

This looks familiar, right?These are the five stages that are famously understood as the natural trajectory of emotions we tend to encounter when we experience the profound sense of loss of someone or something important to us. ​ Although the five stages of grief are a well-known model for processing grief, there are many aspects of the model that are not as well-known.

Some of the most important considerations regarding this model are that these five stages are not reflective of every person’s experience or the complexity of it, and the stages are not actually based on scientific evidence.

Possibly one of the most important facts to consider is that the model was actually,

 NEVER EVEN MEANT TO BE APPLIED TO THOSE EXPERIENCING BEREAVEMENT.

Perhaps this is why there are so many misconceptions about grieving in general.These five stages we have all come to know, were first introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.  After interviewing over 200 patients with terminal illnesses, Kubler-Ross proposed that there were sequential stages of emotions that a patient who is dying from a terminal illness experiences.

  1. The model begins with denial.  After learning of their terminal illness and prognosis, the individual may deny that it is happening.​
  2. This is usually followed by anger when the reality and unfairness of their situation begins to set in.
  3. Then we bargain, which involves an attempt to regain control, whether this is negotiating with a religious higher power for more time or ruminating on what could have been done to prevent the illness.
  4. The next stage is depression, the deep and heavy sadness experienced as a result of what the patient has lost and will lose.
  5. Eventually, the final stage is when the individual comes to terms with their impending passing and move through to the acceptance stage.

This may be surprising if you are one of the many people who understand this model to describe the trajectory of grief after losing a loved one.  In reality, these five stages (also known as the DABDA model) were not meant to be applied to the bereaved. 

The model has been researched and tested again since its conception and very few studies have confirmed these separate stages of grief.  Supportive studies have been critiqued due to methodological errors.  Overall, there is no empirically valid evidence that most people grieve in stages, or in a linear way at all. Despite this, this model persists and is continuously applied to the grieving process, cited in research and even mentioned in conversations among those grieving and comforting the grieving.  This is likely because experiencing the loss of something or someone significant can disrupt and shake our lives causing discomfort and fear of uncertainty, so just like everything else in our life, we want to categorize and quantify it to bring us a sense of predictability.  

We want a sense of direction and comfort in the midst of so much uncertainty.  We want the comfort of knowing that we will be okay, we just need to get through the stages.  The simplicity of the model makes our grief process feel more simple, orderly and less permanent than it actually is. 

Unfortunately and fortunately, there really are no stages or universal sequential steps of emotions you have to experience to come to terms with your loss.  



SO WHAT IS GRIEF REALLY LIKE? 

The days, weeks, months and even years proceeding significant loss are marked by overwhelming and, at times, confusing waves of emotions.  The model can provide a sense of comfort and can normalize and validate the feelings that are usually experienced.  Having a model that validates these waves and intervals of sadness, anger, guilt and contentment offer a helpful guide to cope with the mixture of feelings.  

We want to exercise caution when any guide could lead us into the common misperception that there is a “right” way to grieve and that there are steps that have to be followed.  This could not be farther from the truth.

Picture

On top of the loss and the grief, the last thing we need is to judge ourselves for being angry when we “should” be moving towards acceptance or even feeling like we are ever done grieving our loss at all.  

​We learn to adjust and we learn to integrate the loss into our life, but we may experience these stages multiple times in different orders and in different ways.  

There is no specific timeline for grief.

  Many people feel the sense of loss for their whole lives even when the initial intense feelings gradually decrease over time.

THE BOTTOM LINE.

The important takeaway is that the best way to move through the stages of your grief in a healthy way is to feel your grief in all its associated emotions.  Many people find it helpful to see a therapist who can help us process these various emotions in an effective way.  

​This past year has been characterized by so much loss and grief. 

Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil calls a family to tell them a loved one has died of COVID-19. (Photo credit: AHS)It has required major life adjustments and many people have begun to lose hope.  With everything happening, with all the pain, I hope people come to realize that grief takes many forms and is experienced in different ways; countless ways which can not be reduced to a simple five stage process.  

​I hope those who are experiencing this grief in whatever way that they are in this moment and the next, know that whatever you’re feeling is valid and real and completely fine. Through our very personal grieving process, the memories of our loss can be integrated into our life and might eventually become a source of hope, inspiration and strength.  We can find new meaning and purpose and feel it’s possible to move forward even when we’re feeling deep sadness.  

We think of grief as something that we need to get past, but it’s the pain of the loss we’re trying to escape from, and our grief is actually a tool that is given to us to help us work through the pain.  

​As you feel all your feelings, you can begin to work through them in a healthy way.  The process does not need to be done faster or be slowed down, it just needs to unfold the way it does.  ​


Additional supports on the topic of grief:


If you prefer talking to a human to help find the right therapist for you,Call 

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You can expect a reply within 24-48 hours, Mon-Fri, during regular business hours.


References

Charles A. Corr (2019) The ‘five stages’ in coping with dying and bereavement: Strengths, weaknesses and some alternatives,Mortality, 24:4, 405-417, DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2018.1527826

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. Simon and Schuster.

Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Boerner, K. (2017). Cautioning health-care professionals: Bereaved persons are misguided through the stages of grief. Journal of Death and Dying74(4), 455–473. https://doi.org/10.1177/003022281769187

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Picture of Julia D'Addurno, H.BA, MACP

Julia D'Addurno, H.BA, MACP

Registered Psychotherapist (qualifying) Julia is a Registered Psychotherapist (qualifying) with Dig A Little Deeper and also completed her graduate training with us.  Julia completed a double major undergraduate degree in Psychology and Creative Writing, before enrolling in her Masters program to become a Psychotherapist, and enjoys using her creative skills to bring mental health awareness & healing to her readers.

1 thought on “Grief does not happen in 5 stages”

  1. I don’t have any idea why, with regards to death, we say we lost somebody. They’re not absent or lost. They’re whisked away from the most secure hug.

    Reply

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