No matter if you’ve had a breakup or a death in the family, when we experience a significant loss, the first thing we often hear about is Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. Well-meaning counselors, friends, and others tell us that we must experience five psychological stages in order—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—if we want to properly grieve a loss.
When we experience a monumental loss that shakes the earth below us, it makes sense why so many crave a structured grief process—a map with a clear path forward through unbearable pain. When we’ve lost our bearings in the darkness of sorrow, it provides a comforting sense of order to believe that our grief follows a logical process. It is understandable to crave structure when it seems like we’ve lost our way and nothing makes sense.
The only problem is, research shows there’s no evidence that everyone’s grief moves through universally-prescribed psychological stages. And it can cause more harm than good to try to change your emotions to fit someone else’s idea of how you should be feeling. This article walks you through why universal stages of grief don’t work for all people, and it provides guidance for a more personalized and flexible approach to grief and loss.
Why The Five Stages of Grief Doesn’t Work for All People
For starters, the five stages of grief, coined by researcher Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the 60s, was not originally meant to apply to all loss universally. In fact, Kübler-Ross initially studied and wrote about the five stages only in terms of people who themselves were dying from a terminal disease. Among other misconstrued stages, Acceptance takes on a totally different meaning in this context.
Even within the population she studied, Kübler-Ross identified that her stages of grief weren’t necessarily linear or universal, which raises questions about the usefulness of stages in grief generally. Why have five stages if the number varies by person? Why think about grief in stages if one stage doesn’t lead to another? (Indeed, for all the good that came from Kübler-Ross encouraging people to talk openly about death and mourning, the idea of stages has fallen out of the mainstream amongst contemporary scholars of grief.)
Here are the main reasons why it isn’t always helpful to think about your grief in stages:
Grief has no recipe: The way grief manifests depends on the person and the loss. Everybody’s experience is unique, no framework of stages can speak to a universal process of grief, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. To suggest otherwise can cause people to police their grief rather than accepting their experience as it is.
Grief can’t be rushed: To suggest that there are five consecutive stages implies that grief is something that can be optimized—that knowledge of the stages can allow one to move more quickly through them. When grief doesn’t go according to plan, this can make someone feel like there’s something wrong with them.
Grief is not linear: The most common pattern of grief is one that fluctuates back and forth between sorrow and restoration. To suggest that there are progressive stages of grief implies a linear movement across them. If someone finds themself feeling depressed when they thought they were “farther along,” they may negatively judge themselves and their process, adding pain to an already challenging experience.
Grief is a messy business: To grieve is to be human, and to be human is to be full of unpredictability and contradiction. When grief is reduced to a rigid formula, we run the risk of reducing our very humanity, disconnecting ourselves from our real, felt experience.
There is no closure with grief: A linear process with a final phase, such as Kübler-Ross’s Acceptance, implies that it is possible to feel a sense of closure from loss, that there comes a point when you can finally move on. On the contrary, most people find that in order to grieve in a healthy way, they must create a new relationship with the deceased (more on this below) rather than accepting that the relationship has ended and moving on with their lives.
Letting Go of Universal Grief Stages and Opening Up to What’s True for You
Ultimately, there is no one right way to grieve, and it is different for everyone. You shouldn’t judge yourself if you haven’t expressed overtly emotional displays of mourning—not everyone grieves that way (this is particularly true for children and some men*). The best advice is to make time and space to feel your feelings, however they come, while testing the waters of life to see what activities and responsibilities you can tolerate. Beyond that, consider these five-ish considerations for an individualized and flexible process for coping with loss. Remember, this is not a recipe for grief or a linear set of instructions but instead a series of open-ended considerations for charting your path forward.
Five-ish Considerations for Opening Up to Your Unique Grief Process (adapted from Judith McCoyd’s “Five Vs”)
Don’t Fight Your Feelings: Loss hurts more when we police our experience. Look for ways you may be applying shoulds to your grief: It was only a dog — I shouldn’t be in as much pain as I am; I should show more emotion after my dad’s death; I shouldn’t be this wrecked after losing a job. Validate your right to have your own unique experience of mourning, no matter how you perceive others feel about it.
Express your Emotions: Talk, journal, paint, or dance — the medium doesn’t matter so long as you find ways to be emotionally expressive and “let it all out.”
Continue the Bond: This consideration is most applicable to death losses. Create rituals to maintain a sense of connection to who you lost. That may look like visiting a gravesite on a regular basis, or it could take the form of a memory box you add to over time with memorabilia and notes. Continue an ongoing conversation with your loved one, whether through prayer, journaling, or meditation, seeking their advice, or by reflecting on how their life informs and adds meaning to yours.
Ride the Wave: Grief comes in waves that are impossible to fully control. Understand that you’ll oscillate between active grief and more restorative activities. Think about how future events—like anniversaries and gatherings—may intensify feelings of grief, and care for yourself by preparing wisely.
Write Your Story: Identify how to make meaning from and honor the loss or the part of you that has changed. Use that information to give you direction about continuing to live your life. How did the lost person, entity, or experience add value to your life? How will the answer to that question inform your values and sense of purpose moving forward? If it’s a job loss, consider if there’s a silver lining. If it’s a death loss, ask what you may learn by honoring your loved one’s memory and how you may live your life in such a way that is true to their legacy.
If you’re finding it overwhelming to navigate these considerations alone, schedule an appointment online or by phone (215-922-5683 x100) with one of our trained grief therapists who can support you in your process.