Debunking the 5 stages of grief — and 3 ways to start healing today

January 27, 2022 - 17 min read

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Where did the 5 stages of grief come from?

What's wrong with the 5 stages of grief?

How can I better understand my grief?

3 ways to cope with your grief

Grief is both personal and universal. All humans will indeed experience grief in the face of loss. But it’s also true that all humans experience grief in their own unique way.

Even though most people will experience grief at some point in their lives, most are unprepared. Our society does not teach about grief or how to process it in healthy ways. It also doesn’t teach us how to support those well who are grieving. Without this understanding and skill set, it’s natural that people search outward for explanations. 

Fundamentally, humans search for meaning and purpose. We want to make meaning from our experiences, and loss is a big experience. But humans are also pattern-seeking beings. For many, the big experience of loss, and the magnitude of emotion that comes with it, feels like uncharted territory. We find comfort in thinking there is a map. As humans, we like process — and we like knowing what to expect.

There’s a grief framework, outlined into five stages, that is often applied to those suffering a loss. Over time, this framework around the five stages of grief gained popularity. For practitioners, thought leaders, and grievers themselves, it’s become a tempting framework to apply to grief.

But as we know, grief can be messy. And there are many types of grief. If you’ve experienced grief yourself, you know that your grief journey might not have followed the famed five stages.

That’s OK. There’s reasoning behind it.

Let’s talk about updated thinking around the stages of grief. We’ll also talk about why modern grief practitioners know that grief often doesn’t fit into the traditional five stages. It doesn’t need to. 

Where did the 5 stages of grief come from? 

One of the most widely known theories about grief is from Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Dr. Kubler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist who worked with terminally ill patients. The framework she defined was specifically about terminally ill patients grieving the end of their own lives. 

She first published her findings in 1969 in her book entitled, On Death and Dying. In this book, she describes five stages of grief in the terminally ill patients she cared for: 

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Dr. Kubler-Ross published this work about dying patients. But her work has been inappropriately applied to the bereaved and those struggling with all types of grief.

Dr. Kubler-Ross herself was somewhat perplexed that people were applying her model to all bereaved individuals when her research focused solely on those who were facing their own imminent death.

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What's wrong with the 5 stages of grief?

Acknowledging that such broad application was never Dr. Kubler-Ross’s intent, you might wonder what's the harm? Why is using the 5 stages as our frame for understanding grief flawed? Actually, there are a few concerns with applying the 5 stages for all grievers:

  • Not evidence-based. Essentially, Dr. Kubler-Ross gathered anecdotes from around 200 dying patients. She then used those conversations to create the five stages of the grief model. When we look at other psychological models, it requires more than just anecdotes.

    Evidence-based theories or models usually require a scientific method, hypothesis, research, and more. But Dr. Kubler-Ross analyzed only conversations. This makes her model more of a collection of conversations with dying patients rather than an evidence-based model that can stand on its own.

stages-of-grief-man-sad

  • Misappropriated usage. The model was intended to describe the emotions of terminally ill and dying patients. Given Dr. Kubler-Ross studied a very specific type of grief, it’s hard to apply her findings to a wider population of all people experiencing grief.

    We know that grief comes in all shapes and sizes. For example, we’re collectively experiencing grief as a society as a result of COVID-19. Others experience grief when a friendship or relationship ends. Grief can occur when a loved one is severely mentally ill. It can come with an empty nest, a lost job, or even the process of aging.

    Because each loss is unique, the responses and associated grief will also match that uniqueness. 
  • Unintended consequences. Most people don’t experience grief in stages, with these emotions, in this order. Thus the five stages model can actually cause harm to grievers. It can make people feel inadequate at a time when they need maximum support and confidence in themselves. Grievers may feel that they are not “doing it right” or that they are “not normal” if their experience of grief differs.

    The people around them may also judge whether or not they are grieving properly. It can be used to measure how they are "getting over it" based on their own misapplication of the 5 stages model.

    Most people’s experience of grief will differ simply because grief is personal, and we all experience grief differently. Further, this can lead to disenfranchised grief, which only exacerbates the griever’s symptoms. 

How can I better understand my grief?

As humans, we crave connection and individuality. We want to feel part of something and feel honored and accepted for our uniqueness at the same time. It’s this dichotomy that can inform our understanding of grief and provide guidance on how to process it in ways that support our individual needs.

Grief practitioners understand that there is no easy fix for grief. Grievers looking for a simple model to explain their grief may find initial comfort in the five stages in the short term. Over time though, as grief takes its inevitable twists and turns, they may find they are lacking the skills and understanding to deeply process and integrate their grief.

Before you can seek support, it’s important to understand your grief and identify it

Recognize how grief shows up in your life, mind, and body

Grief responses arise from many kinds of losses. Sometimes you might not recognize that what you are feeling is grief. Certainly, the death of a loved one is one of the most profound losses people will experience in their life.

But many kinds of losses trigger grief reactions. These include:

  • Loss of a job
  • Loss of social connection due to quarantine
  • Cancellation or postponement of a significant event
  • Miscarriage
  • Divorce
  • Empty nest syndrome (when children are grown and moved out of the familial home)
  • Life-changing diagnosis for yourself or a loved one
  • Death of a cherished pet
  • Death of a loved one

Recognizing what you are feeling as grief allows you to invite practices and interventions to support your grief journey. 

stages-of-grief-woman-on-beach

Physical reactions. Our body can respond to grief. Sometimes, our body will respond before our mind recognizes that we're grieving. 

  • Lethargy and lack of energymotivation and interest may be hard to find 
  • Changes to sleep patterns — sleep disruption, difficulty getting to sleep, sleeping more, insomnia
  • Weight gain or loss. This includes changes in eating habits or cravings. We also see hormone-related changes due to high levels of cortisol related to sleep disruption
  • Increased susceptibility to illness. This can occur from less attention to healthful behaviors and an immune system working less effectively 
  • The surfacing of old injuries or the onset of new aches and pains. When your brain is working to deal with grief, it has less energy to focus on keeping your body healthy

Emotional reactions. Of course, we all have emotional responses to grief. Take a pulse of your emotions and notice what's showing up for you. 

  • Loss of interest in things that used to bring joy
  • Numbness, shock, sadness, despair, fear
  • Decreased confidence
  • Increased or new onset of anxiety
  • Sense of loss of control
  • Changes in capacity and ability to deal with stress
  • Changes in interpersonal relationships

Recognize grief works on its own clock — and can vary in impact 

  • Grief reactions are wide and varied and can take us by surprise. Grief impacts our physical and emotional health in many ways. Sometimes the impacts are surprising, and we don’t always make the connection between cause and effect. 
  • Grief takes its own time. It’s normal for acute grief to subside over time. The American Psychological Association states that most people start to feel relief from their intense reactions to uncomplicated grief between six months and two years.

    It’s also normal for people to feel intense, unexpected grief even years after a loss. Dr. Therese Rando defined this phenomenon in the early 1990s as Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief (STUGS). STUGS are usually brought on by some kind of triggers such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or memorable places.

    STUGs may seem random and unexplained but if you take a moment to examine what might be triggering the emotion, you likely will find an explanation. Sometimes, the days or weeks leading up to a triggering event can bring deeper feelings of grief, even years after a loss.

    Sometimes STUGs is triggered when a new loss occurs. Because of this time lag and unpredictability, we can’t know how many people in our work and personal circles are experiencing some form of grief. It's likely someone near you is grieving right now.
  • Grief changes us in ways both mundane and profound. After deep losses, you are different and may need different things.  What was always important to you may feel superfluous now. What you always liked to do, might not be meaningful to you now.

    You may need different things from friends and family. Grieving losses that formed our identity means that we are fundamentally different. Learning who you are now, what’s important to you, and what you need now is an important part of the grieving process. 

3 ways to cope with your grief

The good news is that there are ways to understand your grief that can lead to healthy ways to process it. 

Acknowledge that grief is messy

Grief does not follow a prescribed route, set of stages, or standard progression. By understanding this about your grief, you release yourself from feeling like you need to explain it to yourself or to others. You feel what you feel. Period.  

Identify and be aware of your feelings of grief

You cannot heal what you don’t feel. Getting in touch with what you are feeling and naming it can be the first step in opening awareness of what you need right now.

Having clarity on what you are feeling can also help you ask for what you need from yourself and from others. Dr. Gloria Willcox published the Feelings Wheel to help put words to emotions.

stages-of-grief-friends-laughing

Seek support

You don’t have to go through grief alone. And no matter what loss you’re suffering, your grief is valid.

With BetterUp coaching, we can shift grief from a difficult workplace topic to becoming a source of universal connection by validating and acknowledging grievers’ experiences. BetterUp has recently launched a grief coaching track focused on understanding how your grief might show up at the workplace or at home.

With this personalized support, you’ll learn how to create a safe space for those experiencing grief. You’ll also learn what to say or how to support a teammate or friend who may be suffering a loss. One member recently shared their experience with a fellow coach who specializes in overcoming grief.

“I recently experienced a shocking loss. While I grappled with making sense of this tragedy, Melody gently helped me to see grief in a new way. My relationships are significantly better, I feel calm and complete, I know myself better, I feel equipped to take on life’s difficult experiences, and I have freed myself to live fully.”

If you’re feelings of grief persist over time, seek professional support. Sometimes, grief can spiral into depression. If you’re struggling or living with depression and grief, seek the advice of a trained mental health professional

Start coping with your loss

Grief takes countless forms and is experienced in limitless ways. Grief cannot possibly be explained by a simple five-stage model. When we push this narrative as universal, we alienate those for whom it does not apply and only cause them more pain in an already painful time. 

There are ways to process your grief in healthy ways that acknowledge your unique feelings and experience of grief. If at any time you feel like you need professional support, find out what type of grief support is best for you. 

And no matter where you are in your grieving journey, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. There’s no checklist to the grieving process — and your feelings are valid.

Continue to practice self-awareness and self-care as you navigate your loss. If you’re a caregiver or supporting a loved one through a difficult loss, lead with empathy and leave judgment at the door.

With personalized support, you can strengthen your mental fitness and overcome grief and loss. Take control of your mental health and well-being — and get started today. 

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Published January 27, 2022

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Premier Fellow Coach

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