Our identities are built by the stories we tell of the events, experiences, and relationships in our lives. A loss, death, or traumatic event is akin to the manuscript of our lives being shredded and returned to us with no instructions on how to re-write or live our lives.
In these times of acute grief, when we are busy trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, it’s no wonder that we feel disoriented, confused, anxious, sad, lost, irritated, and unable to concentrate.
A profound loss means the outline to our life story, plot, character motivation, supporting characters, and dialogue have all been gutted. We are at a loss for words, and so too are those around us.
Grief is the journey we are on as we rebuild the manuscript of our lives, and that means we will face writer's block, have moments of breakthroughs, struggle with doubt about the progress we’ve made.
Afterall, we’ve never been here before. We’ve never faced this loss before. We’ve never had to travel this path before.
Yes, there is wisdom to be found in those who’ve had to rewrite the manuscript of their lives. And, this is your story, not theirs.
So, this time calls for you to be creative, to experiment, to be patient and compassionate. You will also need to improvise, a lot. Think Yes, and...
The Origin of Grief Stages
When we face the unknown, the unexplored terrain that is life after loss, we desperately seek certainty. Ambiguity feels like our enemy.
We crave anything to help us scaffold back together a story of our lives that makes sense:
- Top-10 lists.
- 5-ways-to lists.
That’s why so many people rejoiced when Swiss-American Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, offered the 5 Stages of Grief theory in her seminal work, On Death and Dying in the late 60’s.
Finally, the world gasped with a collective sigh of relief: there is structure and order and an outline for how “to do” grief right [note sarcasm in my writer’s voice].
In our eagerness to find clarity and instructions, we ignored the fact that she was describing the stages of people coming to terms with their own death, not the loss of their loved ones.
It wasn’t until later that she adapted and refined her thinking of the stages of grief in her book On Grief and Grieving in 2005 with co-author, David Kessler.
Still, we got it wrong.
- We humans are storytellers.
- We use stories to make meaning.
- We hope for narratives that are linear and neat, with Hollywood-style endings.
- We are anxious and uncomfortable with messy, chaotic, cliffhangers full of twists and turns and uncertainty.
That’s why most opted for the Cliff Notes version of the Stages of Grief, ignoring the cautions, nuances, and invitations to see these as common emotions and reactions to loss, not a linear path.
So, in our haste to see neatness and order, many of us were left feeling lost and confused and full of self-judgment and loathing when it didn’t turn out to reflect our lived experiences of grief.
No One Grieves the Same
Remember, grief is the set of emotions we feel on the inside. Mourning is what we do with those emotions on the outside.
Yes, grief is universal. 100% of us will experience loss, likely many times over in the course of our lifetime. And, that doesn’t mean we experience grief the same. The uniqueness of each of our life stories means we will all experience our grief journey in our own way.
Truth be told, we will not even travel the next grief journey in the same way we experienced the last.
Yes, sometimes what we show on the outside matches the emotions of grief we are feeling on the inside. Sometimes it doesn’t match at all. And sometimes, what we are showing on the outside does match how we are feeling at that moment on the inside, which may include feelings of joy in the midst of deep grief or sadness in a moment of true celebration.
We are complex beings capable of holding many emotions at once. This is reason #492 I implore you never to compare your grief to someone else’s, because you can’t actually see how they feel.
So, is it true that we will all experience the things described in the Stages of Grief Models?
Yes, you will likely experience all the emotions described in the Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Andit won’t be linear, it won’t follow anyone's predictions about duration (not even your own), and it won’t look like anyone else’s journey.
The 5 Stages of Grief Explained
Before we go any further, I want to pause for a moment and say something to you, and I want you to really hear me.
Though you may often feel broken in your grief, you are not. Grief isn’t a problem that needs fixing, nor can it be fixed.
Grief is a normal response to loss. Whatever you are feeling is normal. Your grief doesn’t need fixing, it just needs feeling.
Grief elicits so many difficult and painful emotions; ones that you have likely never experienced, nor have you developed the skills to sit with them…yet. But you will, I promise.
Part of helping you see how very normal your feelings are is to understand some of the common responses so many others have experienced along the way. That is where I find value in the 5 Stages of Grief offered by Kubler-Ross.
Denial is one of the most powerful coping mechanisms we have as humans. In the wake of serious injury/illness, catastrophic events, death or other traumatic circumstances, denial allows us time to adapt to distressing circumstances and to protect ourselves from an avalanche of stress and emotions.
Denial helps us set a more manageable pace for our grief journey.
In grief, denial can look like:
- Dismissing the accuracy of test results.
- Refusing to believe the relationship is really over.
- Dismissing the importance or significance of the loss.
- Holding out hope they will somehow, someday, return.
Anger takes many forms and has many targets. Frankly, some of us will be relieved to know that it is an incredibly common and normal response to loss.
While denial offers us reprieve from the stress of trying to find our footing when the earth has crumbled beneath our feet, anger can be an anchor or a step in our journey as we navigate towards solid ground again.
Feeling angry is normal and finding space to express it is an important step along our grief journey.
Anger makes its presence known as:
- Universal rage - “Why me?” or “Life isn’t fair.”
- Questioning or turning away from a source of faith that had previously guided us.
- Directing blame at individuals or institutions for passive or active involvement; including ourselves.
Bargaining looks very different with each type of loss, but what it has in common is a false sense of hope. It is an attempt to undo, mitigate, or reverse the devastation that has already occurred.
Like denial, it is another coping mechanism, protecting us from feeling the full weight of sadness, hurt, confusion, and pain all at once.
Bargaining appears as:
- Negotiating a reversal to the ending of a relationship with promises of changed behavior
- “What If” statements on an endless loop: trying to imagine a scenario where different actions would have resulted in a different outcome
- Often a time where feelings of guilt emerge
While the sadness experienced in grief can appear similar to depression, this is one stage that has always caused me a bit of concern as it has a pathologizing tone.
I wholeheartedly agree with the wise Pauline Boss, the “godmother” of Ambiguous Loss, who has noted many times that there is a vast difference between depression and sadness.
Depression is a medical condition, requiring medical intervention, whereas the vast majority of people experiencing grief just feel tremendous sadness; understandable in the wake of devastating loss.
The feelings of sadness (versus depression) may start out intensely, but they come in waves and eventually get farther apart.
Still, it is important to note that sadness in the face of loss can look similar to depression, including:
- Feelings of emptiness.
- Lack of enjoyment of typical activities.
- Brain fog, distraction, forgetfulness.
- A sense of hopelessness.
Acceptance is not the finish line. Again, this isn’t a linear journey where you get to check off each mile marker as you go.
Still, acceptance is a place you may find yourself having crossed and return to over and over again without realizing it.
This isn’t a recognition that the loss was good, justified, or even okay. It’s simply an acknowledgment of the reality.
Acceptance is a place that may look like:
- Having more good days than bad.
- Feeling more clarity, direction, and finding language that helps you navigate life more easily.
- A sense of openness to new possibilities without the heaviness of guilt weighing you down.
The Changing Manuscript of Grief Theories
If you’re thinking, “enough with the theories, I’m not an academic”, I hear you. However, it may be helpful to understand how we are collectively adapting, editing, and discovering new ways to tell the story of grief.
One of these alternatives may resonate better with your own experience.
Though the 5 Stages of Grief Theory is still the most well known, many others have attempted to define, describe, and offer different perspectives on how and why we grieve.
The 4 stage grief theory.
Long before Kubler-Ross, British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby was applying his attachment theory of children to the subject, noting that grief is a natural adaptive response to loss.
Along with his colleague Colin Murray Parkes, they offered a 4-stage theory:
- Shock and numbness
- Yearning and searching
- Despair and disorganization
- Reorganization and recovery
The four tasks of mourning.
After Kubler-Ross’ theory gained popularity in the public arena, others responded with their own edits, additions, and adaptations, with increasing emphasis on the non-linear nature of the process.
This includes William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning offered in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:
- Accept the reality of loss
- Work through the pain of grief
- Adjust to an environment where the deceased is missing
- Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life
The sixth stage of grief.
Even Kubler-Ross’ colleague and co-author, David Kessler, has recently revised the 5 Stages of Grief.
In his latest book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, he offers finding meaning as an important sixth stage. Kessler concluded that after years counseling others in their grief and facing the tragic loss of his own son, there was a need for more.
Finding meaning, he argues, is not about finding meaning in their death, but in their life.
I see this meaning-making stage as part of re-authoring the manuscript of our lives.
- Finding language that brings to life the love that was shared.
- Finding meaning offers us a way to shift our focus away from the notion that a part of us died with them.
In this phase/stage/task, we are invited to build a narrative that includes how they are living on through us, through our words and actions. Yes, I think there is value to this way of thinking, and if you’re not there or you never get there, that is okay too.
Things to Consider About the Stages of Grief
By now, you’re likely not shocked to learn that I have some significant concerns about the negative impact the Stages of Grief approach has had on our collective ability to feel seen, supported, and held in our grief all these years.
I am not the first writer, nor will I be the last, to lay such claims.
While I do recognize the intentions of Kubler-Ross and Kessler were widely misinterpreted, the damage has been done, and is still being done.
Grief is hard enough without all these grief myths getting in our way, so here are some Caution Signs that a grief myth may be getting in the way of your grief journey and some helpful hints on how to ditch the myth.
Caution: No GPS route available.
Though Kubler-Ross and Kessler did not set out to offer a step-by-step roadmap to grief, our cultural obsession with certainty, achievement and happiness discarded their intentions.
As a result, many therapists, friends, and family still insist it is the perfect GPS-guided solution to our pain, making our real-life experiences of off-roading through the challenging terrain of grief feel like a terrible mistake.
As if we are the foolish ones who didn’t punch in the coordinates to happily-ever after.
One way to ditch this myth is to remember grief came long before GPS was invented, and our species navigated the journey just fine without it.
Caution: Beware of the shoulds of grief.
Our collective misuse of the Stages of Grief approach has added to the already enormous arsenal of SHOULDS that get in the way of the messy, heartbreaking, sometimes beautiful work of navigating our grief journey.
The work of grief is adapting, editing, and re-writing the manuscript of our lives (or creating our own map to stick with this metaphor) that was torn to shreds in the wake of loss.
Our heart knows how to grieve, but so many of the stories told by our culture about how we should or shouldn’t feel, think, or behave in our grief get in our way.
Sometimes they are so subtle we don’t even recognize when we “should” all over ourselves.
One way to ditch this myth is to listen out for everytime you hear the words should(n’t) related to how you are feeling, thinking, or behaving in your grief (hint: it might be coming from inside your head).
Caution: Your body is the vehicle.
What the Stages of Grief completely ignores is the way grief manifests physically, spiritually, psychologically in our minds, heart, and our body. It can show up as headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, loss of appetite, stomach pain, fatigue, and more.
Grief increases inflammation, weakens the immune system, and can increase blood pressure - with intense levels of grief causing more serious heart conditions, sometimes known as “broken heart syndrome”.
One way to ditch the myth that grief is only in our minds is to begin with a simple practice of checking in with your body, and sending loving kindness there too.
A body-scan meditation should do the trick.
As a writer, I admit that I’m desperate to wrap this up with a neat little ending, a 5 ways-to-get through the stages list, or a happily-ever-after parting image.
But as a social worker, widow, and grief guide, I’m going to honor the messy, unscripted nature of grief and share some parting Yes And invitations for you to ponder as you continue on your grief journey.
- Yes, grief sucks. It sucks so much.
- Yes, it’s hard and painful and messy.
- Yes, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before and no one can understand exactly what you’re going through at this moment.
And, it’s okay if you feel sad, angry, confused, peaceful, lonely, happy, relieved, numb, hurt or however you feel at this moment.
Yes, however you are grieving at this moment is just fine as there is no one right way to grieve. And, that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. You can learn from others along the way.
Sometimes, connecting with fellow travelers, ones who may be a bit further down the road, can be helpful. They can point out when the Shoulds of Grief are getting in the way. I suggest a British friend who can tell them to “bugger off” … because humor helps.
Yes, your friends, family, and faith communities can all be wonderful sources of support, at any stage along your grief journey. And,sometimes they suck.
- They don’t want to be bad at it.
- They want to do the right thing.
- They want to say the right thing, and that is part of the problem.
Sometimes, friends and family love and care about you so much they often spend all their energy desperately trying to keep you above water.
Mental health and other wellness professionals are trained to get on their SCUBA gear if necessary and join you underwater for a while.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Remember, we all need help along the way.