Driving home a few nights ago, I was shocked to hear soundbite from a famous Sirius talk-show psychologist tell a jilted caller that she “had to go through the five stages of grief” just as if her ex had died. She ticked them off – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – as though we all should understand that this is “right” way to handle a break up or death of a loved one.
My gripe isn’t that she compared a break-up to a death – the two loss experiences can feel very similar – though we must acknowledge some very real differences between the two (which I will save for another post). My concern is that if someone like Dr. Jenn Berman gets it wrong on Oprah Radio, of all places, how many others do too?
To be kind, pop culture has contributed to the popularity of the “5 stages of grief.” Even Lisa Simpson seems to believe, and she is one of the smarter people we all know, like and trust. At least as far as TV goes.
The death of a loved one shatters the assumptive world, leaving little ground to stand on, and it is human nature to seek answers and meaning. Many people search for a timeline – “how long before the pain stops?” Many others want to know what to expect – “what are the stages of grief?” After all, it would be nice to have an easy-to-follow process after the rug has been pulled out from under us. Let’s take a look at the 5 Stages of Grief – where they came from and why so many people think it is the gold standard for grief.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross & The 5 Stages of Grief
After interviewing dying patients (with compassion, I should add), Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying. This best selling book details her observations of the patients’ emotional process, humanizing the subjects in a way previously unheard of in the medical community. She did for death what Masters and Johnson did for sex – shined the light on something universal but relegated to the shadows for far too long.
In her book, she outlines 5 stages that a dying person may experience:
- Denial and Isolation
Here is the problem: these are observations of the Dying Patient, not those left behind to grieve. Additionally, Dr. Kubler-Ross herself labels these as observations, and did not do any form of testing or peer-reviewed research to isolate these as the alpha and omega of grieving. In fact, there has been no research project to date that has been able to prove that the 5 Stages of Grief are universal.
Dr. Kubler-Ross herself did not mean for these 5 stages to become prescriptive for the dying patient, rather she meant for them to humanize the patient so that compassion and care could be offered during the patient’s final hours. In the introduction to her bestseller, Dr. Kubler-Ross explains:
[This book] is not meant to be a textbook on how to manage dying patients, nor is it intended to be a complete study of the psychology of the dying. It is simply an account of a new and challenging opportunity to refocus on the patient as a human being, to include him in dialogues, to learn from him the strengths and weaknesses of our hospital management of the patient.
She is certainly to be respected for her trailblazing, for her compassion, and her willingness to share it with the world. However, remember that these 5 stages were observations of dying patients, not prescriptive stages of grief.
Contemporary Research on Stages of Grief
The reality is that “grief-work” is an active and individualized process. Contemporary theories of grief recognize that there are no stages to prescribe and nothing to cure. Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and each person’s experience will differ based on variables such as the quality of the relationship, status of unfinished business, support, coping strategies, the way in which the loss occurred, etc.
That being said, knowledge is power, and when everything is falling apart it is natural to try to gain control by learning more about grief. This is where the current theories of grief can be really useful. Over the next few weeks I will be offering more details on each of the following theories, all of which allow space for the individual expression of grief:
Meaning Reconstruction – Robert Neimeyer
When the assumptive world is shattered, we need to reconstruct our self-narrative and find meaning in a changed world.
Four Tasks of Mourning – William Worden
- Accept the Reality of the Loss
- Work through the Pain of Grief
- Adjust to a New Environment after the Loss
- Reinvest energy into Self and Life after the Loss
Dual Process Model – Margaret Stroebe & Henk Schut
To cope with loss we move between a loss-oriented focus and a restoration-oriented focus.
Attachment Theory – John Bowlby
- There are psychological, physical, social, and spiritual components to grief
- Phases of grief include: Numbing, Yearning and Searching, Disorganization and Despair, and Reorganization.
Beyond the 5 Stages of Grief: Find What Works For You!
Ultimately, we all work through grief in our own unique way. If someone tries to tell you how you “should” be grieving, beware… while their intentions may be good, they are offering you advice not grounded in science. There are so many effective grief interventions – and as long as you are causing yourself and others no harm – it is likely that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing. Remember grief is a natural reaction to loss, and you were born with the inner resources to navigate this tough terrain – even when you feel otherwise.
There are, of course, many things you can do to help yourself along, such as processing your feelings in a grief journal, spending time with people you love, getting outside in nature. If you do have questions or concerns about your grief process, talk to a thanatologist or mental health professional with training in death, dying and bereavement. Above all else, be kind, patient, and gentle with yourself, just as you would be with a dear friend in the same shoes.
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- Guided Self-Inquiry Meditation for Grief - September 20, 2016