There are no “stages” of grief

By Victor Parachin M. Div

Unfortunately, some people (including professional counselors) promote the mistaken idea that there are well defined “stages” of grief that every person goes through.  This rigid approach to the bereaved is unfortunate and misleading. 

It’s much wiser and more accurate to suggest that there are phases of grief recovery that are common to many, but not every, person who is grieving.

For example, the bereavement authority Colin Murray Parkes described four phases:  numbness, pining, disorganization, recovery.

Another example comes from Dr. William J. Worden, also a grief expert who cites four “tasks” of mourning which most, but not all, grievers experience:

* to accept the reality of the loss

* to experience the pain of grief

* to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing

* to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

Still, another approach was offered by Swiss American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her immensely popular book On Death and Dying.  There, she outlined a five-stage process which many, but not all, experience:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Her five “stages” were written about those who were terminally ill and in the dying process.  Unfortunately, her “stage” theory was hastily adapted and applied to the bereaved, very few of whom felt their grief matched the five “stages.”

There are many other models of grief recovery; some have three steps, while others have as many as seven or 10.  The issue with pre-determined stages or steps is that they seldom are found in the experience of grievers.  Recently, researchers from Yale University tested five stages of grieving.  As lists of the five stages vary slightly from source to source they settled on examining disbelief, yearning, anger, depression and acceptance.  For three years, they collected data as part of the Yale Bereavement Study—in total, 233 people were interviewed approximately six, 11 and 19 months after a loved one (usually a spouse) had died.

Those whose relatives had a violent death or who were suffering from what is known as a complicated grief reaction were excluded.  The resulting picture was more complex than the five stages would suggest.  The researchers found that acceptance was the strongest emotion throughout, while disbelief was very low.  The second strongest emotion throughout was yearning, and depression was more evident than anger at every stage.  Also, emotions did not follow the form of an orderly sequence.

After six months, the researchers found that all negative emotions were beginning to decline.  This is good news for grievers but it doesn’t mean that people were somehow “over it.”  It’s common to miss the deceased profoundly for years to come, but their research reveals that most people do adjust and adapt to the loss.

Whenever you come across any theory about grief stages, keep in mind these two realities about grief recovery.  The first is that some people do find that elements of their own bereavement experience corresponds to some elements of these models.  However, a bereaved man or woman may not go through all of the stages in any grief recovery model.  Furthermore, very few grievers go through the “stages” in any sequential order.

The second reality is that we’re all different.  Just as we have different tastes, views, ideas, understandings, we humans all grieve individually and in according with our unique personalities.  That’s why the best advice about “stages” and “phases” is this wisdom from author Sue Mayfield in her book First Steps Through Bereavement:  “Everyone is different.  If your bereavement doesn’t fit any particular pattern, don’t worry.  It doesn’t mean you’re not normal.  It just means that you are you.  Do it your way.”

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