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5 Stages of Grief

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's landmark book On Death and Dying proposed a model of grieving. The 5 stages: denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are now deeply embedded in our culture and accepted as fact. That said, this model was misapplied to those grieving the loss of a loved one.

"The 5 stages of grief are so deeply embedded in our culture that no American can escape them. Every time we experience loss – a personal or a national one – we hear them recited: denial, anger bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But the stunning fact is that there is no validity to the stages that were proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross more than forty years ago." ~ Ruth Davis Konigsberg, The Truth about Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss

Ms. Kübler-Ross intended that these 5 stages of grief describe the adjustment process by terminally ill patients in relation to their own death. Not a research study, On Death and Dying was merely an exploration of some commonly-experienced emotional reactions of those who were terminally ill.

This means you should simply let go of the idea that your grief will progress through a set of defined stages because in reality, there is little or no research-based evidence to support the notion that you'll experience them during your bereavement. Today, some 45 years after the publication of On Death and Dying, there's a new science of loss, which offers us a fresh and very positive perspective on bereavement.

Psychologist, George Bonanno, one of the major researchers involved in the exploration of grief and bereavement, interviewed hundreds of people. He followed the natural course of their grief from a point before they were bereaved until long afterwards. His book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, outlines that the common perception of despair and depression following the loss of a loved one is not the norm.

Bonanno found that two-thirds of those interviewed were resilient in coping with the death of a loved one. In fact, those in mourning fluctuate between sadness and normalcy. This emotional oscillation is “nothing short of spectacular” and the predominance of joy is "striking".

These fluctuations change over time. In the online article "5 Surprising Truths About Grief", author Ruth Davis Konigsberg shared psychologist Toni Bisconti’s findings that fluctuations can occur rapidly, changing from one day to the next. However, "over time, those swings diminish in both frequency and intensity, until we reach a level of emotional adjustment."

This is good news for those who mourn the death of a loved one. More good news comes from knowing that there are no rules guiding your bereavement. The path of your grieving is yours and yours alone, and is unique to you. You can use powerful healing tools such as journal writing to explore the dynamics of your grieving experience.

As psychologist Vaughn Bell of King's College in London, England, noted in the 2012 online article "We All Grieve in Our Own Way", "Contrary to our long-held assumptions, there are no rules to grief, no stages except our personal journeys, and no task except those we set ourselves," he writes. "Normality is not what we return to; it is what we go through."