In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her landmark book, On Death and Dying. The book documented the emotional process that people with a terminal illness experience as they approach death. Based on observations of and interviews with hundreds of people with terminal illnesses, Kübler-Ross identified five stages that a person may go through as they near death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Over time, these stages have become known as the “Five Stages of Grief.”
Chances are that you’ve heard about the “stages of grief” at some point in your life. You may even have tried to apply these stages to your grief to serve as a compass to let you know when the emotional suffering would be over. Or perhaps you have used the stages as a checklist: “I’m angry…so I must be doing something right” or “I’ve been depressed, so I’m almost done grieving!” Like many people, you may have found the stages model to be rigid, simplistic, and/or insufficient in easing your pain. Or maybe you haven’t felt like you were in any of these “stages” and wondered “What’s wrong with me?” If you haven’t asked yourself any of those questions, there is nothing wrong with you. The problem is with the inaccurate application of the idea of stages relating to the grief you feel when someone important to you dies.
In my practice, I have found that some clients arrive at my door focused on which stage they think they are in. This line of thinking prevents them from recognizing and identifying their true feelings surrounding the loss. The stages model, when used to describe grief, does nothing to help grievers discover and complete what was left emotionally incomplete between them and the person who died.
The stages were developed by Kübler-Ross in response to an observed lack of understanding and sensitivity by healthcare professionals to the emotions of dying patients. She sought to equip physicians with a general framework they could use to identify common themes present in the end-of-life experience. But the stages aren’t relevant to grievers, nor were they ever intended to be used as a timeline towards healing.
Kübler-Ross herself confirmed the misuse of the stages in one of her final books, On Grief and Grieving by stating, “The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. There are no stages or timelines to move through. Every relationship unique, as is the individual grief we experience when someone important to us dies.
In November 2008, Russell Friedman and John W. James, co-founders of the Grief Recovery Method, wrote the article “The Myth of the Stages of Dying, Death and Grief.” I encourage you to read the article to better understand grief and to give you hope that recovery is actually possible.
If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, read more of our articles on grief and grieving.
This article was written for the eFuneral Resource Center by Laura Sefcik, MPH, MSW, LISW, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist.® For many more helpful articles and a series of questions and answers, please visit the Grief Recovery Method®Guidance Center at Tributes.com. Those thinking about end-of-life should visit eFuneral.com for help researching, planning, and arranging a wide variety of funeral-related services.
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