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We've Got The Five Stages Of Grief Wrong

22/06/2017 17:13
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"Well, I think I've done denial, but not really anger yet."

My friend, Sarah, sits across from me, cradling a cup of tea in her hands. She gives me a little half-smile that's probably trying to say, "I'm okay really, sorry for talking about it."

Three months ago, Sarah's dad died just a few short weeks after a terminal cancer diagnosis. In her words, it was quick and painful, both for him and everyone around him.

Now, less than a hundred days since she had to say goodbye to her father, I can tell that she's asking herself the question that so many bereaved people ask: when will it get better?

Like many people before her, and probably many after too, she's using the five stages of grief as her template of what grief should look like. It's probably an unconscious use of words, but it says a lot about how she's thinking about her grief.

"You know," I say, walking on inevitable eggshells, "It's okay if you don't go through all those stages. Denial, anger and so on..."

I am not a bereavement counsellor, but I do spend the vast majority of my waking hours reading, writing and thinking about grief. If Sarah and I were any less close as friends, I probably wouldn't venture to comment on her way of grieving.

Sarah looks up and sighs. "Yeah, I suppose I know that. I guess I just want a checklist of things to do, like always."

Sarah is a notorious organiser of all aspects of life. When we knew each other at university it was a running joke - on a night out Sarah would carefully pre-book taxis, check everyone had their ID and tickets, and get mad if we weren't ready to leave by 11.00pm sharp. Her colour-coded study timetables put us all to shame.

Perhaps it's only natural, then, that Sarah's looking for a template, a neat timeline, of how grief should work. She's latched on to the five stages of grief, the most well-known - and misunderstood - theory of how bereavement works.

The five stages theory was developed by a Swiss psychiatrist called Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, informed by her work with terminally ill patients. These five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Although developed to apply to people who knew they were dying, Kübler-Ross suggested that the stages could accompany many kinds of loss, from divorce to drug addiction.

Over the years, the general public has seized upon the idea of five stages of grief, with pop culture propagating the idea that people move through the stages one by one. Everyone, from Homer Simpson to Remainers after the referendum, has apparently experienced the five stages. And, as with Homer, the process is usually shown in the 'correct' order and results in complete rehabilitation from the loss.


The idea of the five stages has caught on. Maybe it's because the idea of five stages is catchy and easy to remember, like an advertising slogan. Maybe it's because we're all eager to believe that there's a set course planned out to help us through grief and trauma.

The problem is, it's not always that easy. Grief doesn't conform to a timeline, it isn't easily divided into five emotions, and most of the time it is wildly unpredictable.

Kübler-Ross herself admitted, later in her career, that she regretted not making the five stages clearer. She hadn't intended them to be a simple paint-by-numbers guide to grief. At the most basic level, these were just five things that grieving people might experience at some point. There's no order and the stages can even be experienced at the same time.

So much for keeping things organised.

I can tell that for Sarah, who usually tackles everything in life head-on and with a well-thought-out plan, not 'completing' the five stages feels like failure, even though it's only been a few months since her loss. Why aren't I better yet? Shouldn't I have moved on by now?

"I don't want to tell you how you should be dealing with this," I say.

"No, I know," she replies. "But at the same time, I wish someone could tell me how I should be dealing with it, you know?"

I nod and she stares at her teacup, as if wondering where the tea has gone. I could tell her all about the theories of grief I think are more accurate, like the Tonkin's model, which acknowledges that loss never gets any smaller. Or the dual process model, which lets the bereaved know it's okay to have moments when you aren't consumed by grief.

Later, I'll decide to send her some information on these theories, along with plans for our next catch-up. But for now, it's enough just to pour her another cup of tea.

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