Modern Myth: The 5 stages of grief

Modern Myth: The 5 stages of grief

grief myth 5 stages

There are several popular myths that have become well and truly embedded within our cultural consciousness, yet when examined a bit more closely, turn out to be a tad dubious. I’ve covered several in past posing, so let’s add to that and take a look at one more popular myth.

Here are a few examples I’ve covered in the past…

  • The Marshmallow Test – The idea is that kids who learn how to delay gratification do far better in later life. The problem here is that it is a correlation and not a causal relationship – yet still today some schools sell the idea of teaching this delayed gratification to your kids so that they many then gain the supposed better life outcomes.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment – People playing assigned roles supposedly exploited the perceived power they had … except … the entire thing was a sham. It was not scientific and has not been reproducible. It may be famous, but it was also fraudulent.

To add to the above we will take a brief look at the 5 stages of grief.

5 Stages of Grief

These are described as follows …

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

  1. Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
  2. Anger – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”.
  3. Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. Examples include the terminally ill person who “negotiates with God” to attend a daughter’s wedding or an attempt to bargain for more time to live in exchange for a reformed lifestyle.
  4. Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one; why go on?”. During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
  5. Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it; I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

Perhaps the place to start is to wonder about where this model came from, and to ask ourselves if this is truly a robust well-established model.

Origins

This is known as the Kübler-Ross model. In 1969 the Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, laid it out within her book – On Death and Dying. There is one very important key point here …

  • It was not based upon any scientific study, but instead came from her observations made of  terminally ill patients.

While the initial book in 1969 was specifically describing how people coped when faced with a terminal illness, a later book that was published posthumously extended the scope to include almost anything traumatic such as divorce, a job loss, the end of a relationship, etc…

What does Science tell us?

There is a 2017 paper titled “Cautioning Health-Care Professionals: Bereaved Persons Are Misguided Through the Stages of Grief“. It is highly critical of these supposed stages …

Science and practice seem deeply stuck in the so-called stage theory of grief. Health-care professionals continue to “prescribe” stages. Basically, this perspective endorses the idea that bereaved people go through a set pattern of specific reactions over time following the death of a loved one. It has frequently been interpreted prescriptively, as a progression that bereaved persons must follow in order to adapt to loss.

It has remained hugely influential among researchers as well as practitioners across recent decades, but there has also been forceful opposition. Major concerns include the absence of sound empirical evidence, conceptual clarity, or explanatory potential. It lacks practical utility for the design or allocation of treatment services, and it does not help identification of those at risk or with complications in the grieving process. Most disturbingly, the expectation that bereaved persons will, even should, go through stages of grieving can be harmful to those who do not. Following such lines of reasoning, we argue that stage theory should be discarded by all concerned (including bereaved persons themselves); at best, it should be relegated to the realms of history. There are alternative models that better represent grieving processes.

In essence, the idea that there are 5 distinct stages that we progress through in a linear fashion is utter nonsense.

When Kübler-Ross wrote her book in 1969 she was describing how some people coped with illness and dying. She later came to regret writing it in the way she did and also rejected the idea that such stages were linear and predictable.

Her co-author of their 2014 book explains it as follows …

The stages have evolved since their introduction and have been very misunderstood over the past four decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.

The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.

That last part of the rather key point.

Myth: There are 5 distinct stages of grief and we progress through them in a natural linear fashion

Reality: It is complicated. There is no right or wrong way to handle grief. We all react and cope in different and distinctly diverse ways.

The book described what she observed, but it was never meant to dictate that there was a specific universal set pattern that needed to be followed. It is time to let go of that myth.

Observations by Subject Matter Experts

Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif. (www.grief-recovery.com), and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998) …

“no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss…. No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

David B. Feldman, Ph.D. professor in the department of counselling psychology at Santa Clara University….

It’s important not to criticize ourselves if our grief doesn’t act like most people’s.

Grief isn’t a race to the finish line, and it isn’t a contest to see who fits Kubler-Ross’s stages best. It’s a natural, though emotionally difficult, part of life, and one that can’t be easily explained by five simple stages.

Robert A. Neimeyer concluded in his scholarly book Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (American Psychological Association, 2001): …

“At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”

Five Stage of Grief Myth – Further Reading

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