Many people, even those who haven’t dealt with much grief in their lives, are aware of the five stages of grief. They have become the most common understanding of how we process and work through grief.
The five stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross model, were first proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying."
These stages, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are often described as a linear progression that individuals go through after experiencing a loss or facing a terminal illness. However, it's important to note that these stages are not a one-size-fits-all model and not everyone experiences them in the same way or in the same order.
How do the five stages fail us in our grief?
There are a few different ways how the five stages of grief don’t encapsulate the full spectrum of grief, and are rather limiting.
Developed to describe people with terminal illness.
Interestingly, the five stages of grief weren’t actually created from those living with grief after losing a loved one. Kübler-Ross developed them to describe the process patients go through as they come to terms with their terminal illnesses.
The stages were only later applied to grieving friends and family members, who seemed to undergo a similar process after the loss of their loved ones.
Grief is more complex.
Additionally, it's important to understand that the five stages of grief are just one way of understanding the emotional experience of loss. Some people may not experience all of the stages, or may experience them in a different order.
Others may experience a different set of emotions entirely. You might criticise yourself for not doing grief right, but grief is a highly individual and personal experience, and there is no "right" way to grieve.
You might try and cling onto each stage of grief.
It’s easy to question and not fully understand where you’re at and how you’re feeling. Raw grief is intense, so often we’re looking for answers to explain how we’re feeling when we don’t have the words for it ourselves.
Thinking of grief in five stages limits our full spectrum of emotion. Is the denial stage over? Once I’ve gotten through the depression, will acceptance come? These kinds of thoughts might have you holding out for a certain feeling that might not come.
Doesn’t reflect other coping mechanisms.
Another limitation of the Kubler-Ross model is that it primarily focuses on the emotional responses to loss and does not take into account the many other ways that people cope with grief.
For example, some people may find solace in their faith or spirituality, while others may find comfort in the support of friends and family. Leaning on friends and family and sharing grief lessens the burden that grief holds on us.
It’s also important to understand that faith can be shaken in grief. Faith doesn’t just refer to religion. We have faith in many things—in ourselves, in others, and in the future. When someone passes away, our faith in these things can be shaken.
The theory has largely been debunked.
Scholars and professionals have been trying for years to let the five stages of grief die by debunking it. The model has been criticised by some in the field of psychology for being overly simplistic and not reflecting the complexity of the grieving process.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Institute of Medicine committee cautioned “against the use of the word ‘stages’ to describe the bereavement process,” as it might “result in inappropriate behaviour toward the bereaved, including hasty assessments of where individuals are or ought to be in the grieving process.”
Grief is a highly individual and personal experience, and it can take many different forms. Some people may find comfort in the structure provided by the five stages of grief model, while others may find it limiting or unhelpful.
Final thoughts on the five stages of grief.
Something that new studies have found is that for most people, grief starts to ease after a few weeks and continues to reduce from there. There can still be tough times ahead, but in most circumstances, by the time you reach six months, you’re unlikely to be in a constant state of severe grief.
However, if you are still in a state of severe grief, that doesn’t mean your grief journey isn’t normal. Lean on your support systems, be incredibly kind to yourself, and carve out time to practise routines and rituals that can support you in your healing.
Grief is the price we pay for love. It is incredibly individual and complex, and all of us will experience intense emotional turmoil from grief at some point in our lives.
If you’ve ever found the five stages of grief frustrating or not a reflection of your own experience, know that you’re not alone, and it’s a common feeling.
At Bare, we're always here for you, no matter where you are in your grief. Head to our Grief Resources for videos and articles to support you during this time.