For as universal as grief is, it’s something that is still little understood. We will all grieve and mourn a loss at some point in our life. That is, unfortunately, certain. But what’s uncertain is how we will grieve. It’s uncertain how we will mourn. And it’s uncertain how we will cope as we make our own journey through our grief and try to find a path toward healing.
Despite the uncertainty, there have been attempts to identify and define certain aspects of grief. In this ongoing series, we will explore these different theories and models of grief, starting with the most well-known of the bunch, the Kübler-Ross model. But before we dive into the different theories on grief, it’s important to remember that they are just that — theories. In reality, grief isn’t as simple as a list of steps or stages, and everyone grieves in their own unique way.
History of the Kübler-Ross Model
Almost everyone has heard of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These five stages came from the Kübler-Ross Model. However, when they were first introduced in 1969, they didn’t exactly apply to grieving over the loss of someone. Instead, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her theory after working with terminally ill patients. Her model of grief was meant for those facing a terminal illness, and how they reacted to their own looming deaths.
Her work with the terminally ill led to her book, On Death and Dying, which quickly became a popular resource for patients, families, and professionals on coping with imminent death.
It wasn’t until years later that the five stages became associated with grieving a loss. And once the five stages hit the mainstream media, they became associated with any kind of loss — from the loss of a job to even the loss of a home’s value.
Stages of Grief
The five stages are pretty well known, but here’s a quick refresher:
- Denial — This stage originally applied to the diagnosis of the terminally ill, in which they would react to their diagnosis by denying it or claiming it’s a mistake. As it applies to other types of loss, it means we react to loss by denying it and the emotions associated with it. Instead, we choose to cling to our old reality before the loss.
- Anger — Anger and frustration set in when a person starts to accept the reality of the situation. According to Christiana Gregory, PhD, anger stems from when we “find it incomprehensible of how something like this could happen…”
- Bargaining — Bargaining, as originally meant for the terminally ill, involved the act of promising some sort of change in order to extend their life or change their diagnosis. For the grieving, it usually involves guilt. Here Gregory notes, people begin asking themselves “What if?”
- Depression — Depression is one of the more commonly recognized parts of grief. We feel overwhelmed by our emotions, our diagnosis or our loss, and begin to withdraw from the world.
- Acceptance — The acceptance stage involves embracing mortality — whether it’s our own or the loss of a loved one. Gregory describes it as coming to accept a “new reality” and learning how to live life after a loss.
For as popular as the Kübler-Ross Model is, it’s generally misunderstood. Even Kübler-Ross noted in a later book, On Grief and Grieving, that the five stages are not linear and they don’t follow a specific pattern.
Other misunderstandings include:
- You only feel each state once. That’s not true. The “stages” can repeat. These emotions come in waves. Just because you’ve felt anger over a loss, doesn’t mean that emotion won’t be felt again in the future.
- Once you’ve felt all five “stages” you’ll be over it. This is another common misunderstanding. There’s no “over it” or end date. When people think of the five stages, they think that once you’ve felt all five emotions, you’re all better. But that’s not how it works. After a loss, we are forever changed. As we accept our new reality, we will always feel some part of the emotions associated with our loss. It’s these emotions that show we’re still connected to our loved ones, even after they’re gone.
- You’ll only feel these five emotions. Again, not true. People will feel more (or less) than just the five “stages.” There’s no guarantee that a grieving person will feel denial or even anger. And there’s also a lot more emotions a person might feel than simply the five listed. Humans experience emotion in complex ways. And when mourning a loss, there are hundreds of different emotions a person will likely experience.
Kübler-Ross Model Today
Despite some criticism and misunderstanding, the Kübler-Ross Model is still important. In fact, for its time it was revolutionary. It did something that was completely new at the time, and that was giving a voice to the terminally ill. It helped highlight their needs, fears, and other emotions they felt as the came to terms with their mortality. And in turn, it helped us better understand the complexity of grief.
Dr. Allan Kellehear, a Professor at the Center for Death and Society, sums the five stages best. In a forward for the 40th anniversary edition of On Death and Dying, he wrote that despite the criticism of the five stages, it “has never succeeded in putting off millions of ordinary men and women looking for some basic understanding and insight into the social and emotional experience of their dying or those of their loved ones. Even today, if one reviews the hundreds of “customer reviews” on the websites such as Amazon.com, one cannot fail to be impressed at how useful this book remains for today’s readers for genuine insights and empathic descriptions of the social and psychological world of the dying.”
What are your thoughts on the Kübler-Ross model of grief? Share with us in the comments below! In our next segment, we’ll explore Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning.
Download our free guide on grief for ways to help your client families through their grief journey.