The death of a loved one shatters the assumptive world, leaving little ground to stand on. It is human nature to seek answers and meaning. Many people search for a timeline – “how long before the pain stops?” Many others want to know what to expect – “what are the stages of grief?” After all, it would be nice to know what to expect after the rug has been pulled out from below.
Misnomer: The 5 Stages of Grief
When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in 1969, she began a revolution. The process of dying, indeed the emotions of the dying patient, finally received recognition by not only the medical community, but the public at large. In her book, she outlines 5 stages that a dying person may experience: (1) Denial and Isolation, (2) Anger, (3) Bargaining, (4) Depression, (5) Acceptance.
Here is the problem: at some point, the 5 Stages of the Dying Patient mistakenly became known as the 5 Stages of Grief. Additionally, these 5 stages are not experienced by all patients, nor are they experienced by all bereaved persons.
Even Dr. Kubler-Ross did not mean for these 5 stages to become prescriptive for the dying patient, rather she meant for them to humanize the patient so that compassion and care could be offered during the patient’s final hours. In the introduction to her bestseller, Dr. Kubler-Ross explains:
[This book] is not meant to be a textbook on how to manage dying patients, nor is it intended to be a complete study of the psychology of the dying. It is simply an account of a new and challenging opportunity to refocus on the patient as a human being, to include him in dialogues, to learn from him the strengths and weaknesses of our hospital management of the patient.
She is certainly to be respected for her trailblazing, for her compassion, and her willingness to share it with the world. However, remember that these 5 stages were observations of dying patients, not prescriptive stages of grief.
Contemporary Theories of Grief
The reality is that “grief-work” is an active and individualized process. Contemporary theories of grief recognize that there are no stages to prescribe and nothing to cure. Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and each person’s experience will differ based on variables such as the quality of the relationship, status of unfinished business, support, coping strategies, the way in which the loss occurred, etc.
That being said, knowledge is power, and when everything is falling apart it is natural to try to gain control by learning more about grief. This is where the current theories of grief can be really useful. Over the next few weeks I will be offering more details on each of the following theories, all of which allow space for the individual expression of grief:
Meaning Reconstruction – Robert Neimeyer
When the assumptive world is shattered, we need to reconstruct our self-narrative and find meaning in a changed world.
Four Tasks of Mourning – William Worden
- Accept the Reality of the Loss
- Work through the Pain of Grief
- Adjust to a New Environment after the Loss
- Reinvest energy into Self and Life after the Loss
Dual Process Model – Margaret Strolbe
To cope with loss we move between a loss-oriented focus and a restoration-oriented focus.
Attachment Theory – John Bowlby
- There are psychological, physical, social, and spiritual components to grief
- Phases of grief include: Numbing, Yearning and Searching, Disorganization and Despair, and Reorganization.
In the mean time, take time to bring awareness to your experience. You may want to start by healing grief in the body, attend The Healing Retreat or Yoga for Grief group. Either way, be gentle with yourself and others.