The five stages of grief are a lie

Dorian Minors

Even if you can’t remember them all, I’m sure you’ve heard of the 5 stages of grief. What you almost certainly don’t know is how they’re supposed to work.

The five stages as they’re commonly (wrongly) known

When something bad happens to someone, we move through five emotional stages in response:

  1. Denial: at first people can’t (or won’t) believe the news.
  2. Anger: eventually they’ll switch to rage, railing at the world and those around them for what has happened.
  3. Bargaining: when the anger cools, people tend to try and avoid the truth by trying to bargain the grief away, asking for some implausible trade to make the pain go away.
  4. Depression: when the crazy bargains never eventuate, people begin to despair and fall into a depression.
  5. Acceptance: finally, depression gives way to a more sanguine view – embracing the event and moving forward.

How many TV episodes based their plot around this linear set of stages? Neat and discrete. This view of grief has been so pervasive and sticky that plenty of doctors and psychologists think that this represents the ‘true’ process of grieving. Whether one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or mourning the death of a loved one, if one deviates from this path, many health professionals will do all they can to get you back on track. You wouldn’t want to screw up the grieving process would you?

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Us health professionals are supposed to care. It’s in our textbooks. But plenty care far more about putting in the minimum.

Shame that it’s wrong then

Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who worked a great deal with the terminally ill. In her book On Death and Dying, she described these five reactions to grief based on her observations. But at no time did she outline a specific structure or process for these actions. Merely that people dealing with a terminal diagnosis may experience one or more of these emotional reactions at any time. Sometimes experiencing them simultaneously or perhaps not at all.

In fact, more recently, Dr Kübler-Ross noted that she regretted her original book, highlighting people’s misunderstanding of her original observations. This might explain why there’s no convincing empirical evidence to support her non-model. It might also explain why anyone you’ve ever known to go through a period of grieving didn’t clearly follow Dr Kübler-Ross’ plan. Fact is, grief is the emotion we feel when something incomparably awful happens to us. A quick spot check should have anyone suspicious that such a deep and intense emotion would follow such a neat and ordered process. It’s one of the fundamental flaws of the scientific method. Our search to understand the world better often leads us to create a structure for that understanding, even if no such structure exists.

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Grieve how you like. Don’t let anyone tell you that going to a theme park probably won’t fix things.

So next time you or someone you know suffers an awful loss, don’t feel the need to force the experience into a box. Anyone expecting you to follow the five stages of grief probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. A better way to handle it would be to figure out what you’re feeling now and reaching out for support in the moment. Anger requires one type of help. Depression another. And none of that help should have a focus on moving you into the next ‘stage’. Just solving whatever it is that you’re feeling now.

I would hazard a guess that you don’t know what defines a ‘disorder’ from a normal emotional experience. That’s because psychologists rarely know either. Also, you might be interested to know how else scientists are lying to youTurning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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