The Five Stages of Grief

For some reason, there’s something about people constantly quoting the five stages of grief that really irritates me. They are quoted by a counselor-type of people trying to make a meaningful point. They are consistently quoted in books, blogs, and newspaper articles. They are quoted regularly regarding everything from losing a job to moving across the country to lost hopes and dreams to loss of a pet. The “five stages” model/method seems to be one-size-fits-all. It’s become a catch-all tool.

It just bugs me. If I start to read something – obviously written by a person who has not lost a child or a dearly loved one – that quotes the Five Stages of Grief model/method, I have to quit reading the piece and move on to something else. The funny thing is that most people who deeply grieve, particularly bereaved parents, don’t quote the five stages of grief when talking about loss and grieving. They know it’s not as simple as walking through a stage or room or climbing up a stairway.

I’m sure Elisabeth Kübler-Ross meant well when she first published the Five Stages of Grief (the most frequently quoted) in her book On Death and Dying. I’m sure all of the people who earnestly quote these five stages (or any other number of stages) mean well. I’m just not sure all of them really know what they are talking about or have the depth of a great loss (especially when it comes to the death of a child) in order to address the topic of grief with empathy or understanding. I’m talking about the real, gut-wrenching, honest-go-goodness understanding of having been there. People with book-learning think they know what they’re talking about; they’ve extensively studied and read about grief. Surely, they know enough to address the topic with relative assurance that they know the topic. I guess I’m just not sure they do unless they have the life-experience to go along with it. Maybe it’s just me, but only when I have identified that someone has walked through deep, life-shattering, heart-breaking loss and has the depth of understanding that comes with that loss do I feel that person has the right to speak into my life concerning the loss and grief I feel from Jason’s death.

I guess my problem with seeing or hearing the stages of grief quoted is that they seem so tidy. They seem like they’re steps we walk up, a room we walk through. Step, step, step, step, step – and then you’re done. We picture steps as evenly spaced treads, like on a stairway, leading upward. We picture five steps as manageable in a relatively short amount of time. We picture “stages” as a room we have to walk through. The expectation then becomes, both by the bereaved and those surrounding them, that grief is just a matter of walking up the steps or going through the rooms. Alcoholics Anonymous has twelve steps; surely, five steps of grief can’t be all that difficult or take that long. Even a small house has five rooms; it doesn’t take any time at all to walk through five rooms. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Grief is not tidy steps; it’s not evenly-spaced or sure-footed stages or rooms we walk through. It’s hard, so much harder than anyone who has not been there can ever know. It’s feeling like you’re floating on an ocean of grief, and the waves seem like they’re going to drown you while you’re madly trying to keep your head above water. It’s using every bit of energy you have in reserve to get up and face a new day without your loved one. It’s taking baby steps in the dark, one at a time, along rough, foreign ground. It’s taking one step forward and falling three steps back. It’s falling down and getting back up again. It’s determining to live one moment at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time for a while. It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of time. There is no set or tidy pattern.

Nope – I’m not a fan of the five stage/step method of grief. I would love to hear your input.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney


31 thoughts on “The Five Stages of Grief

  1. I completely agree. Grief is neither mechanistic, linear, nor tidy. I think such overly-neat models can be harmful when others expect to measure and judge us by such arbitrary “stages,” and especially if we allow ourselves to be judged (by ourselves or others) in that way. It’s a personal, unpredictable and largely uncontrollable process that is unique to each of us. Thanks for making to point so clearly.


  2. I like your illustration of a house with five rooms. I think there are stages of grief, but I don’t think they are simple steps, as you have already pointed out. Instead, perhaps like a house, you go from room to room, sometimes back to the same room for a while, then on to another, then round and round the house. Occasionally, I am learning that I can sometimes step onto the porch or the backyard and escape the rooms for a little while (in the earliest days, the rooms seemed to surround me on every side), but in some respect, they are always there in the house, waiting for me to step into them again. Sometimes I clean up a bit in one room, and it feels a little better the next time I enter. Other times, a room is a mess, and I feel the need to wallow there for a while until I get my footing to walk on to another room.

  3. I did a moment of research this morning after reading your post and found a couple of things. As it turns out Kubler-Ross agreed with you, as do I.
    She wrote the five stages after her research with terminal patients, but her work was generalized to fit other losses, according to, in their section on grief and loss.
    “Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In her last book before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief, ‘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 grieving is as individual as our lives.'”

    • I realize that Kübler-Ross had something different in mind when she wrote about the five stages of grief in her On Death and Dying book, and that in her later years sought to clarify her writing and the rigidity that had been applied to it. The “stages” took on a life of their own. It certainly has not stopped others from quoting the Five Stages of Grief as absolute, though. They are probably the most-known and most misunderstood aspect concerning grief.

      • Becky. I had to leave and didn’t finish my thoughts. There is so much to this post…I’m sorry if my response sounded insensitive. I didn’t add that I agree with you. I wasn’t trying to justify K-R or anyone else who puts grief in a box. In fact, I have come to believe that grief is a life “companion,” sometimes quiet, but always waiting for that moment that will make us remember, and then it rages, taking away our breath and our joy. I have grieved my father’s death my entire life. It’s not a “stage,” it’s just there, always lurking. I don’t give it a lot of attention, but I’ve found that the admonition to “finish grieving,” is an oxymoron. Blessings.

  4. Amen to that! I couldn’t agree more. After Stefanie was murdered, I looked to those steps in hopes that I could see if I was moving “up the ladder” and getting closer to feeling like I could go on. Ridiculous! It is messy, it’s not linear, and one minute it’s one feeling and the next another.

    Perhaps “acceptance” which I think is the last one (which takes a LONG time) is the end of some grief (maybe a move across the country) but it doesn’t mean that grief is over for anyone who has lost a child. For me it will never be over, I’ve just learned to manage it differently.
    Thanks Rebecca! Love this post.

  5. I haven’t read anything on the five stages of grief, but did read 2 books just after I lost my daughter that talked about different stages. They (thankfully) made it very clear, through others stories that everyone gets to/goes through/doesn’t even have some stages. It was great for me, because it helped me understand my emotions better.
    I do agree with you too. It’s not a rigid structure to follow, and definitely not a structure to impose on someone. I find people’s expectations of where I should be follow these steps more than I do.

  6. Well written. It is not easy, nor simple, nor clean, nor messy, or…….we could list endless titles for what “we” can and cannot call it. It can anger us at times. As much as others tell us, “we understand,” they never, ever will until they have had the unfortunate luck of losing a child. As far as I’m concerned, the bond between a mother and her child is one so enduring and so passionate that nobody can understand that connection. From my last year, I see grief as learning to breathe, again. Learning compassion, again. Simply learning that I remain here, so accept how I want to approach that in a positive, healthy way for me. Simply accepting that we cannot change the circumstances, and hope that we will be greeted one day by that child, playing in God’s garden.

  7. Thank you for commenting on my blog yesterday. I have explored the “counselling “… the drugs…. the it will get better….. over the past two years. I have explored to be or not to be… I am a “puddle” most of the time and “emotionally incontinent” I choose my “outings”. I don’t any mother who has lost the son or daughter they carried under their heart, and shared that heartbeat initially and perhaps their souls would agree… just when you think you can walk upright the gorilla of grief pounces and kicks the hell out of you again .

  8. Unfortunately, when an idea takes hold in this society, it becomes very hard to dislodge it. The “5 Steps” idea is so entrenched, it even showed up on “The Simpsons”! I’m glad you’re doing something to re-educate us.

  9. “It’s determining to live one moment at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time for a while. It takes a lot of energy…”

    So true, Rebecca! Having served as a come-alongside person for a number of grieving people over the years — as well as continuing to do my own “grief-work” during this same period of time — there is no way to simply drop people into “convenient categories” in how, when, where each person processes his/her grief and deep, irretrievable loss. For some, it may seem to be a relatively short process; for others, quite long, and seemingly unending.

    The more I ponder grief, grieving, and people’s attitudes toward grievers, the more I believe that grief is a highly personal matter — and to *not* take into account each person’s own personality, and what supportive human beings are in the griever’s life, as well as the *level* of support that these supportive ones can lend, and at different times throughout the grieving process, is most unwise. Each person’s grief is as unique as a fingerprint; as infinitely designed as a snowflake. Thank you for sharing with us from the depths of your own suffering. May you be coming to know more and more of God’s healing (people try, and do mean well, but… we are “mere mortals”, when it comes to healing – though God often chooses to use compassionate individuals as some of His best bringers of hope and of His healing here on earth); may His promise of Heaven rekindle His warmth in your heart! – gracie;-)

  10. I really enjoyed this post. You’re right, grief is not set in nice neat stages. It’s not tidy and it’s not easy. Well put.

  11. People cling to oversimplifications sometimes, it is very true. I think the problematic part of Kubler-Ross’ invention is the word “stages,” which implied progression. Progression in grief is very nearly impossible to chart or gauge, in my opinion. It’s a haphazard process, which is bewildering. I’m not sure I can recommend an alternative term. I like the house analogy as well.
    Thank you for this post and for visiting my blog, too.

  12. Yes – I totally agree! Anyone who has actually been there knows that there is nothing orderly and reasonable about it. I think it makes people safer to put labels and expectations on it, as if it can be understood or controlled. Grief has a life of it’s own and sometimes it feels like it is eating you alive. It is terrifying and all consuming, no matter what “step” you are supposed to be on. There are many “professionals” that I wish would read this.

  13. I am SO GLAD you wrote this! I for one am tired of hearing about the five stages. It’s not five stages; more like forty million. More like every day is a stage, and sometimes there’s acceptance, sometimes there’s denial, sometimes there’s bargaining, and they all swirl around each other and repeat and step on one another’s toes. It’s not like, “Well, I’m done being angry, guess it’s time to move on to acceptance!”

    I know the people who say these things probably mean well, but it just goes to show that they have no idea whatsoever about what grief is really like. And then I begin to resent them for not getting it, which isn’t fair, because people do generally want to help and I don’t want to be a grief snob about it. Sigh…

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