Are the “5 Stages of Grief” Real?

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance: these are the very well-known five stages of grief as postulated by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.  At the time of the book’s publication, very little instruction was given in medical school on the subject of death and dying, which was what motivated Kubler-Ross to share her findings in her work with terminally ill patients.

Since the book’s publication, the five stages of grief have become so well-known that they are now engrained in pop culture.  Despite it’s popularity, some people may be surprised to find out that Kubler-Ross didn’t create the stages to indicate a linear progression of grief, but rather to describe the process of the patients she observed. Furthermore, there appears to be no evidence that people go through any or all of these stages or in any particular order.  As unique as is each individual and their relationships, so too is their experience with the grieving process.

Since mourning the loss of a loved one can be such a devastating experience, many who grieve yearn for a checklist, a time to look forward to when the sadness and grief will end.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive “end” to the grieving process; when we lose someone or something that is intensely important to us we never really complete the process.

But there are at least two advantages to this reality.  First, our grief doesn’t end because our love for the person we have lost does not end.  Evidence of grief is evidence that some part of the relationship still lives on.  And second, grief is a sign that the person we have lost was very important to us- it demonstrates our ability and capacity to care about another person- which is the source of much meaning to life.

So what do we do if we can’t go through grief to some end?  As we deal with the life that continues after loss, we adjust to a “new normal”- a new way to be in the world without that person in our life. And, over time, grief changes. Eventually- indescribable sorrow morphs into a sort of bittersweet gratitude- still sad that we lost our loved one but grateful for the gift of sharing our life with them.  Of course, the way our brains process loss, it is completely normal to slip back into sorrow from time to time.

It’s also normal to experience friends and family as unhelpful when we are grieving because our discomfort can make them uncomfortable. So if you are struggling and not getting support you need, it can be a good idea to

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