Why the 5 Stages of Grief Are NOT Helpful
When I tell people that I study grief and that I help grieving people, the most common topic that comes up is the 5 Stages of Grief. It happens so frequently that I pretty much expect to talk about it at some point.
Some of this you may have heard, but if you haven’t it can really be hurting your grief process. So let’s talk about it.
The 5 Stages of Grief were first presented by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist, in her book On Death & Dying in 1969. Her book was based on her interviews with people who had received a diagnosis of a terminal illness and primarily focused on how the patient was dealing with the information that their illness would soon cause their death. She saw that many of her interviewees were going through some of the same reactions – particularly these 5:
1) Denial: This isn’t happening; this is a bad dream, there must be some mistake, etc.
2) Anger: about being diagnosed; about having this illness; anger that others were spared, questions like why me? Anger at self, anger at others, anger at God, etc.
3) Bargaining: includes all the responses when to try to trade our way out of the illness – usually with a higher power: God, if you cure me, I’ll be a better person, etc.
4) Depression: beginning to recognize the inevitability of what will happen; acknowledging the full weight that the end of life is growing nearer; sadness begins to set in about what will be lost, how loved ones will be affected, etc.
5) Acceptance: acknowledging what will be happened, understanding that nothing can be done, that no cure will happen, and usually a desire to make the most of the time left
From the beginning, Kubler-Ross recognized that people may not go through all 5 stages; but I think she could have done a better job in her books talking about this. Now in the late 1960s and 1970s, we weren’t talking about grief or death and dying – and Kubler-Ross should get a lot of credit for simply starting a national conversation about death, dying, and grief. But because we weren’t talking about death and dying, her stages – which were really the Stages of Grief for a Terminal Illness -- they simply kind of got applied to bereaved people – the people who had a loved one die. And to this day, many people have heard of the 5 Stages of Grief, and expect that they should go through them.
So to be fair to Kubler-Ross, she did say in her books that there were other reactions, that you didn’t have to go through all 5 reactions, nor did you have to go through them in order. I whole-heartedly agree with this. On the other hand, I really wish she would have stopped calling them the STAGES of grief – because when you call it a stage, it definitely implies that it is a step-by-step process. And I get it – we’d really like to have a checklist of grief – if I get through these 5 things, then I will begin to feel better. But there really isn’t a clear checklist for grief. Unfortunately, its messier than that.
So what is the bottom line, in my professional opinion? First, grieving people or people facing a terminal illness do NOT need to go through the 5 Stages of Grief. You don’t HAVE to go through anger or bargaining, for example, in order to begin to heal. Furthermore, there are way more than 5 reactions to a terminal illness or to the death of a loved one. There is no one pattern that we all go through, and it’s likely that you will experience more than one reaction at the same time – that is one reason why grief is so overwhelming, confusing, and exhausting.
I hope this clears up where the 5 Stages came from, how Kubler Ross should be acknowledged for starting the national conversation on death and dying; but also how the 5 stages could be misinterpreted and cause unintentional pain.
Below, I’d love for you to share what you had heard about the 5 stages of grief before now – and if that was helpful or not helpful in your own grief journey. And please share this with someone you think might find it helpful.