The Stages of Grief Myth

Pop psychology can be harmful.  The way most of us understand the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, & acceptance) is a great example. A few cautions:

  • Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who developed it, was not studying the experience of grieving loved ones but rather the experience of dying people themselves. Therefore, it’s relevance to grieving family members and caregivers is, at best, limited.
  • She repeatedly stated that people might not go through all the stages and that they are not linear (i.e. one stage does not neatly follow the next).
  • The stages may be most useful as a list of common grief experiences. Recent research replaced bargaining with yearning (intense longing to reconnect with the dead person) and found yearning to be the most dominant negative grief experience many people have.  This list, though, is anything but complete.  Grieving people experience a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional consequences.

Grief


At the end of her own life, Kubler-Ross summarized the myths born out of her model.  She wrote:

“The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

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