The Stages of Grief
Theories about the stages of grief abound, but the truth of the matter is the idea that there are definitive stages of grief has led to an epidemic of people thinking they aren't grieving properly. As if grief isn't hard enough, we now sit in judgment of our grief.
Even the people who have theorized about the stages of grief never meant for them to be used this way, but this is how they get used by people who are grieving, and professionals who should know better.
There is no one path for grief. There are many. The stages of grief one person may go through are going to be very different from what someone else goes through...even when they're grieving the loss of the same person.
Stages of Grief Make Us Feel More Comfortable
Or so we think. Whether we consciously articulate it or not, the thinking goes something like this..."If there was just a clear roadmap that showed me step by step what I'm supposed to be experiencing, then I wouldn't feel so out of control, or crazy, or angry, or scared."
Personally, I think this is at the heart of why the idea of stages is so popular. Grief makes us feel so out of control we long for structure and a predictable path. The problem is that grief doesn't work like that. It is not predictable. It is not comfortable. It does not feel safe.
Grief is a messy business that requires surrender more than anything else. Surrender so we can ride out the unpredictable twists and turns, the white water rapids, and catapulting waterfalls of normal grief.
That's the nature of grief. It's no wonder we want to make some kind of order out of it, but the order we seek does not come from the artificial constructs of stages of grief. The order comes from following our own individual path of grief.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief
Yes, we've all heard them. Some of us know them by heart...denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I'm not saying you are not going to experience these things. There's a good chance you will, but not necessarily. Although real healing comes when we reach acceptance, too many never get there for reasons that are way more complicated than the 5 stages of grief suggest.
What I can say with certainty, is that even if you do experience all of these "stages", you will not experience them in any kind of linear fashion, and you will probably experience each of them many times, not just once before you're done.
It would not be uncommon to go from denial to depression, back to denial, to anger, to depression, to acceptance, and back to depression and anger, and then back to acceptance. Nor would it be unusual for anger or depression to pop up years later for a return visit.
So although, the stages of grief describe certain states that may be experienced when you're grieving, these stages do not provide a logical path for anyone to follow.
More on EKR's 5 Stages of Grief
It's also worth noting that EKR's research was on patients who had just received a cancer diagnosis, not on people who were grieving following a death. Though there are some similarities between the two experiences, and they both involve loss, they are not the same experience.
That's why bargaining is not one of those really common responses to death, whereas it is very common when someone receives an unwelcome diagnosis.
The Real Stages of Grief
Grief does not have a logical and predictable step by step process. Grief is messy, confusing, and exhausting. It can make us feel like we're going crazy, and even that description doesn't fit for everyone who is grieving a death.
Despite the broad range of individual responses to grief, there are 3 phases that most people tend go through. They don't have distinct demarcations between them, and the parameters can vary tremendously from person to person.
Furthermore, knowing what they are doesn't really help much when you're in the middle of it. It's a bit intellectual, and grief is anything but intellectual. Staying in the intellectual realm virtually guarantees a prolonged and incomplete bereavement.
So with that disclaimer, here they are:
1. The death is not real. This is characterized by shock, denial, and feeling numb. This can last up to 6 months after the death, and in some cases even longer.
2. As the death becomes real, people tend to fall apart. Everything feels out of control, disorganized and unpredictable. People feel like they must be going crazy especially if they think they should be feeling better. Nothing is as it was and it feels like it's getting worse instead of better. This typically kicks in 3-6 months following a death. For some it will be getting better toward the end of the first year, but for others it will last much longer.
3. Putting your life back together again. This is sometimes called resolution or reorganization. What it means is that the person grieving is putting the pieces of their life back together, recognizing and accepting that it will never be like it was. This is when people stop focusing on the past and begin to make plans for the future. This can happen at 6 months (rare), 9 months, 18 months or even 5 years...or anytime in between. It really does vary that much.
Why I Wrote the Book
I wrote How to Survive Your Grief When Someone You Love Has Died, to provide the support people who are grieving really need. It is not about the stages of grief. It is about the real nuts and bolts of grieving.
The good news is it is possible to survive, and even thrive following the death of someone you love. In How to Survive Your Grief, I explain exactly what you may be experiencing, why you're experiencing it, and what to do about it, so you can reach a peaceful resolution and move forward in your life with remembrance rather than with prolonged and incomplete grief.
For the most part, grief does not require professional intervention, but I include sections throughout the book explaining when you really do need to get help, what kind of help to get, and how to find it in your community.
For more information on what normal grief really is, and how to cope with it, go to:
Just a note to say thank you so much for your wonderful book. I lost my husband 4 months ago to cancer and
it was all a shock. I never thought he would die and it all happened so fast. I don't have any close family or
friends who understand what I am feeling and it is hard to find a book that explains the feelings as well
as yours has. I have read Dr Kubler Ross's book On Grief and and Greiving which was good but yours is much
easier to take in and I really appreciate the help it has given me so far. I haven't read it all yet but what I have
read is really helpful and is putting everything in some sort of perspective for me. Once again many thanks.
G.P. Sydney, Australia
About Susan L. Fuller
Susan L. Fuller is the author of How to Survive Your Grief When Someone You Love Has Died. She is a grief expert who has facilitated bereavement support groups, provided follow up bereavement services for hospice families and trained hospice volunteers . She is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Massachusetts.
© 2007 - 2012 Susan L. Fuller
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