Why the Stages of Grief Are Wrong (and What to Think About Instead)

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Chances are, you’ve heard that there are five different stages of grief people go through when processing a loss. Maybe you can even recite them all from memory. But experts say that the concept that there are linear “stages” of grief is actually a long-outdated idea. There is no “typical” way to grieve and no one path towards acceptance.

The theory that there are specific emotional stages when grieving originated in the 1960s when Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying. In that now-famous book, Kübler-Ross identified five major emotions her terminally ill patients would typically experience towards the end of their lives: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The Kübler-Ross model, as it’s now called, became commonly known as the five stages of grief and helped spark then-novel conversations about end of life. To this day, it remains a helpful resource for people who are coping with grief. But while important for its time, this concept is “a long-discarded idea” today, says Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, a professor of gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.

“We moved from this notion of universal stagesthat’s a notion that’s 50 years oldto understanding the personal pathways and experiences that people deal with loss,” he says.

The five stages of grief, explained

In On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross described the main reactions terminally ill patients had when faced with their own death.

  • denial after the initial shock of the news
  • anger (“how can this be happening?”)
  • bargaining (such as, “If only I had done that, I could have had more years”)
  • depression, which may include intense feelings of hopelessness.
  • eventual acceptance of the reality.

Experts note that over the years, the message of Kübler-Ross’ book has come to mean something other than what the author originally intended. In a foreword for the 40th anniversary edition of On Death and Dying, Allan Kellehear, PhD, a professor in the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, United Kingdom, writes that Kübler-Ross’ book observed terminally ill people coping with their own impending deaths, and wasn’t a study of people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

He also points out that the stages weren’t meant to be interpreted as necessarily occurring in a linear way. In fact, he adds, Kübler-Ross warns that many of the ‘stages’ overlap, occur together, or even that some reactions are missed altogether.

What grief really looks like

These days, experts agree that grief is highly individual and far from one-size-fits-all. The way one person reacts to the death of a loved one can be completely different from the way someone else doesand that’s normal.

“I often describe it as a rollercoaster where you have good days and bad days,” says Doka.

Grief is a stress reaction that can cause people to feel a wide range of complicated, unpredictable, and messy emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, and even relief. “There are all kinds of emotions you can have, many you might have simultaneously,” Doka says. “Some people might have more of a cognitive manifestation and find it hard to function; others may experience it more behaviorally, others spiritually.” It’s also normal to feel physical aches and pains, he adds.

It’s also not unusual for grief to come and go in waves without a set path towards acceptance. “You don’t necessarily go through all the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—it’s a process,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist based in Chicago, adding that you might experience denial, anger, then denial again.

“The research consistently shows that we don’t go through the stages in a linear way,” she says.

A better model for grief

Purposely not thinking about grief as a linear process may actually be more helpful for people who have experienced a loss. Take a 2012 case study of a 24-year-old woman published in Mental Health Practice: The woman, who learned that her father had a terminal illness while she was away at school, struggled to accept his impending deathand even after she did accept it, still had bad days during which she found it impossible to function. Instead of thinking of her grief as a linear path, researcher Margaret Baier, an assistant professor in the family and consumer sciences division at Baylor University, asked her to imagine it as a pinball machine, during which the rudders can send you back and forth in the grieving process without a clear or simple exit.

This analogy helped give the woman a sense of relief that what she was experiencing was normal. “One of the most freeing aspects of this is the notion that grief is never complete,” Baier wrote in a news release about the case study.

How long does grief last?

There is no one answer. Experts point out that some people find that certain days (holidays, anniversaries) and nostalgic smells or tastes trigger a period of mourning all over again, even many years after the death of a loved one. For example, Michaelis recalls a patient who was grieving his recently-deceased father, a lawyer. “Whenever he came into contact with legal matters, it caused him to feel those emotions all over again,” he says.

“You can be fine one day, and grieving the next,” Lombardo says. “Have self-compassion as you go through the process.” As hard it may be, she adds, “Focus on gratitude over grief: gratitude for that person you’ve had in your life.”

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