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March 30, 2020 Beyond The Dash

The Five Stages of Grief: Kübler-Ross 101

Understanding denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance

The Five Stages of Grief: Kübler-Ross 101
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance make up the five stages of grief. (Shutterstock)

The loss of a loved one is the most significant emotional upheaval that many people will experience. Events like this can be a time to draw close to loved ones, evaluate life and find catharsis. Deep grief can also go the other way: some people become bitter, closed off and seem to never recover.

It's natural to be curious about how others process their grief, and whether or not your personal reactions to loss fit into the realm of what's 'normal'. Though there is no normal in grief, researchers have extensively studied bereavement. Being familiar with the various models of grief can help you understand and accept the new state of your life, as long as you can view these models as general, and not prescriptive. 

Kübler-Ross' 5 Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance

Perhaps the most established and culturally recognized model for dealing with loss is the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Prevalent in pop culture and armchair psychiatry, the average person will know most, if not all, of the five stages — even if they have never personally suffered a loss. It's a simple, relatable model that speaks to people attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, that's not what Kübler-Ross' model is for. It should be seen as a potential way to process your own misunderstood reactions to grief. In fact, this model was never designed to examine the bereavement of mourners. Kübler-Ross studied terminally ill patients' grief in relation to their own deaths. It was never intended to be the blueprint for grieving the death of a loved one. Still, the five stages may be able to help those who are new to grief.

Traditionally, the five stages sound something like this:

1. Denial

"I'm still in shock."

"It still doesn't feel like mom is dead."

"This isn't happening."

"Other people have beat cancer, he'll be fine."

2. Anger

"The doctors didn't even try to save my sister."

"I will kill the driver who hit my son."

"No one understands my pain."

3. Bargaining

"If God makes my friend better, I'll never skip church again."

"If everyone signs this petition, what happened to Steven will never happen to anyone else."

"I'll never take my life for granted again."

4. Depression

"I want to be alone."

"I feel tired all the time — all I want to do is sleep."

"Anytime I get a minute alone I start crying and can't stop."

5. Acceptance

"I still miss her, but days and weeks go by now without thinking about her."

"I like taking flowers to dad's grave on his birthday as my way of remembering him."

"I didn't think I'd ever move on, but things have gotten easier."

"I heard you recently lost your mom. My mom passed a few years ago. Let me know if you ever need to talk."

It's comforting to believe that if you can weather four challenging emotional storms, Acceptance will follow. But that's not really how it works.

So, what is grief really like?

A lot more complex. Mixed in with the five stages are also complicated feelings that most people prefer not to feel. Relief, anxiety, weakness, worthlessness, blame, guilt, mania, hysteria and suicidal feelings often accompany grief. These sinister feelings are more difficult to acknowledge, describe and understand than emotions like anger.

The most damaging misconception of the five stages is that they run linearly. There may be people who experienced denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in perfect order, but that is not the norm. The practical presentation of grief stages is as varied and random as the complex emotions they represent.

The stages may run concurrently, only to repeat again and again. You may loop through depression for years, or return to bargaining every few days. They also happen simultaneously, or sometimes not at all. Back-to-back, three at once, all at once. You may repeat the same stage again and again for months, only to rapidly go through the final four in a moment. In the first moments of grief, you may even experience all stages at once, every second, for hours. It's painful, traumatic, and impossible to call.

It's crucial to remember that there is no 'right' way to grieve. All your feelings are valid — even if you don't understand or like them. If this model helps you process your feelings, embrace it! Knowing the five stages can help you put words to feelings you are trying to understand. Having a structure for processing complex emotions was comforting too. But it's not a definitive, fail-safe or reliable way to conquer grief.

Practical tips for grief

  1. Take care of yourself: eat well, stay hydrated and take enough time to rest.

  2. Don't let your grief become toxic — for yourself and others. Just as you deserve support and understanding, you must also respect other people who are grieving.

  3. Set personal boundaries. Right now you may not be able to handle the same amount of work or social interaction you usually can. 

  4. Remember that time does not heal all wounds. Putting your grief on the back burner will only prolong it. Feel your feelings. You won't regret putting thought and effort into yourself when a loss has occurred.

Find the way through grief that works for you. (Shutterstock)

Most people don't consider the five stages of grief until they are personally faced with a major death. When you're in emotional chaos, it's comforting to think that there is a format for 'getting better.' Grief is not something you leave behind when you're finished with it. As foreign as it feels at first, significant grief becomes part of you — for better or for worse. It's a loss in itself to realize that you will never be the same again.

Consider the Kübler-Ross model as a very tentative hypothesis. It's not prescriptive, absolute, or even true for many people. But it is an interesting exercise in understanding your own feelings. Think of it as a starting point in a long journey toward understanding the way you grieve, not the way you should grieve.

In the next article, we will discuss the first stage of grief: Denial.

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