There Are No Stages of Grief For Those Dealing with the Death of a Loved One: What People Really Go Through in Grief

Hope Weiss, LCSW on Feb 09, 2023 in Life Transition

When I was back in grad school in the late 80s, we received minimal training on grief. There was one elective class called "Death and Dying." Other than that, we were taught about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. Those were the stages that one goes through when experiencing grief. There was even an easy way that we memorized the stages: DABDA. This stood for Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

We were taught that these stages were linear. This meant that a person first experienced denial regarding the death, and it eventually progressed to finally accepting the death. What we weren’t taught was that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross never meant for these stages to apply to people experiencing the death of another. They were created from her work with dying patients. These stages were supposed to describe the experiences that people who are dying most often went through during their illness.

These stages were intended for the dying.

They still crept into popular culture (appearing in everything from That '70s Show to 30 Rock) as what to expect when experiencing loss and another person’s death. These stages were accepted for many years by the mental health field. However, these stages are no longer recognized as being a valid and healthy way of looking at what people go through in grief.

So it was with surprise and disappointment that I saw a request from a reporter looking for quotes regarding the Five Stages of Grief for an article in a national publication. This misinformation from a national publication perpetuates the falsehood that we should grieve in a certain way. It can lead people to think and feel that they are doing grief wrong!

People judge themselves and friends and family judge them if they haven’t completed all of the stages and finally accepted the death. It leads to the idea that people should be done with grief after a certain period of time. Even though several therapists wrote to the reporter explaining that this theory is not valid, she still published the article.

I wanted to write this blog to validate what people are really going through in grief.

We each experience grief in our own unique way. There isn’t one right way to grieve.

Grief is not linear. We do not move from one stage to the next. This illustration is what grief really looks like. It is often messy and all over the place.

There are no specific or set stages and feelings one goes through when dealing with grief. You may experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but you may also experience other feelings, including relief, confusion, guilt…

These feelings do not occur and then never return. You do not feel denial and then you are done with that feeling. Grief is not linear but instead comes in waves.

You may experience more than one feeling at a time. For example, if a loved one had a long illness, you may be feeling sadness and relief (that they are no longer in pain). These multiple and sometimes contradictory feelings can lead to guilt, confusion, and overwhelm.

There isn’t a time frame for grief. We are not supposed to be over someone’s death after a month, after a year… Grief does change in intensity, but it doesn’t go away — just like our love doesn’t go away.

Here are some different ways of looking at grief.

Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model

The Dual Process Model talks about how people who are experiencing grief will move back and forth between feeling all of the feelings about the loss to being distracted from the grief. Dealing with grief is exhausting. This theory states that people need to take a break both to get things done and to have some relief from their overwhelming feelings. It’s normal to move back and forth between these two places. It becomes a problem when one stays too long in either place — when there’s no break from the grief or when one avoids experiencing the grief.

William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Worden states that there is no order or timeline for completing these tasks. He also shares that one may need to re-visit the tasks over their lifetime.

Alan Wolfelt's Six Needs of Mourning

Alan Wolfelt discusses how one actively expresses (or mourns) grief. These needs take place on a daily basis. They create a life of meaning and purpose again.

While grief models can help with understanding what you are going through, it is even more imperative to have someone with whom you can connect and trust to share your experiences with grief. That may be a trusted friend or family member. Having a safe place to share your feelings about grief is important!

However, people may not be able to be there for you in the way you desire or need. Grief is a challenging topic for a lot of people! At those times, meeting with a grief counselor can provide a safe and validating place for you to share your grief experiences.

If you could use some more support, please check out my Grief Counseling page: I offer grief counseling in Longmont, Colorado. Through my online grief counseling services, I am available to work with clients throughout Colorado and Florida.

I wish you care and healing on your grief journey!

Hope Weiss is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Longmont, CO.

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