15th March 2022
In 1969, psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross penned the theory of the ‘five stages of grief’. When someone dies, she wrote, a grieving person will go through a rather specific series of emotional steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And while this may be somewhat true for some people, it gives an incredibly incomplete and overly simplistic overview on how grief works.
Much more research on grief has come out since 1969, yet most people still immediately point to this ‘five stages’ approach when someone dies. They assume they must go through each stage before becoming ‘free’ of grief, but that is simply not how it works. Having worked as a bereavement counsellor in Harrogate and online for many years, I know first-hand that grief happens in a much more nuanced way. And so, when you go back to thinking about the ‘five stages’ theory, keep the following points in mind.
Grief is Not Linear
The most fundamental error of the ‘five stages’ theory is the way it insists people must go through each stage in linear, sequential fashion. This causes a great deal of discomfort, because a grieving person will not consider themselves ‘free’ of the pain of loss until they’ve gone through denial, bargaining, anger, and depression - in that order. “I’m still at the bargaining stage,” they’ll say, “so I’ve still got anger and depression to come before I get over that person dying.” This is, of course, overly fatalistic, and not helpful. People grieve in their own way; the emotions we might feel come in no particular order, with no specific timeframe, and often go back and forth.
Not Everyone Experiences Every Emotion
Along with not experiencing the emotions of the ‘five stages’ model in any particular order, grieving people don’t necessarily experience some of these emotions at all. There may be no bargaining stage, or anger stage, once someone dies. Perhaps you don’t experience any of these stages. A person might immediately go to a place of acceptance, then, 10 years later, feel a sense of depression about the person who has died. So along with not being a linear process, grief does not necessarily include the emotions put forward by Kubler-Ross.
The Improved Model for Understanding Grief
We understand grief in a more holistic way now. We also realise grief to be a lot more fluid, more random, than we first thought. The ‘five stages’ model implies that the size of the grief we feel reduces in size as we pass through each emotion. But more recent analysis has shown, time and time again, that the size of the grief does not get smaller. Instead, our lives get bigger around the grief as time passes by, making it seem less prominent.
If you are struggling with any particular emotion after the passing of a loved one, I offer confidential, non-judgemental bereavement counselling in Harrogate and online, giving you a space to explore your emotions in any way you see fit. Feel free to get in touch with me at any time.