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Are there really stages of grief?

The idea of a stages of grief model was first proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying which she discovered through her work with terminally ill patients. In it she suggested that in there were five core stages that people went through:

  • Denial – Following initial shock that acts as a protective buffer, there is a belief that the diagnosis is a mistake and cling to a different reality by searching for answers, alternatives or someone to blame.
  • Anger – When it is no longer possible to deny what is happening, the person may then experience intense feelings of frustration and anger. This may be directed more broadly at the world, but is often towards people who they feel they can somehow blame.
  • Bargaining – As a way to somehow avoid the unwanted outcome, the person may start to try and strike a deal; to negotiate a way in which to forge a different outcome (e.g. a reformed lifestyle in exchange for more time).
  • Depression – This stage is characterised by despair at the reality of the situation. There may be feelings of disconnection, loneliness and not feeling understood.
  • Acceptance – And in this final stage, there is an acceptance of the inevitability of the situation, which allows for the person to start to make plans and move forward.

This model has come under much criticism, mainly because it isn’t based on robust research; there isn’t evidence that people do in fact experience these stages and certainly no evidence that we experience them in a linear and stepwise fashion. In addition, it does not necessarily take into account any cultural factors that are indeed important when considering how different people grieve.

A more helpful way of looking at this model is that there are experiences that we commonly go through when grieving a loved one. But there is no set order and certainly no timeframe for this. We may experience multiple ‘stages’ at once or possibly find ourselves ‘stuck’ in one. But they are not tasks to be completed and moved through. And whilst they are shared experiences, we are all individuals and as such will experience grief in ways that are unique to us.