Can't Relate to the Five Stages of Grief? Here's Why

coping with grief grief grief resources myth of the five stages

If someone says the word ‘grief’, like obedient little minions the words denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance often trot along behind. I learned early on in my grief journey that I didn’t subscribe to the five stages of grief model. The counsellor I met with presented the five stages and I couldn’t even pretend to relate with any of them. It didn’t remotely mirror my grief experience. Not to mention, personally I baulked at the idea of someone else putting my experience into a predefined box.

But at the time I didn’t have the capacity to consider why.

Why didn’t I resonate with a model that is so popular and widely-known?

Months later I was still curious. What was going on here? What kind of grief-planet did this originate from?

I only had to dig slightly beneath the surface to find that the Kübler-Ross model of grief had been developed to describe the process that terminally ill patients may go through as they come to terms with their terminal illness and approaching deathnot to describe what those of us left behind experience in the wake of a loved one’s death.

How has a model built for that very specific circumstance morphed into a framework for modern day grievers?

I find it deeply disturbing that bereaved humans trying to figure out which way is up are using this as their guide; comparing their experience to each of the five stages, and being left feeling more bereft when their experience doesn’t match up.

I believe that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross didn’t intend for it to be this way.

Her five stages model was created based on observations in clinical interviews with terminally ill patients. As Dr Mary-Frances O’Connor summarises in her fantastic book, The Grieving Brain, “[Kübler-Ross] catalogued what patients said, and she distilled what they described into a model and shared that model with the world.” The model described people’s experience in a moment in time when faced with their own impending death.

The hiccup is that this model then became a neat, tidy process that was applied to those who had experienced a bereavement.

The content used to construct the original model was accurate and correct, but the context and wider application was not.

In grief, whether that’s for your own death or that of somebody else, there are similarities for sure. Obviously loss is present in both, and maybe there’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, OR a whole host of other states of being and emotion.

I think of it like baking. What’s your favourite baking either to create or consume? Cake, bread, biscuits, scones, muffins, brownie, pavlova, lemon meringue pie, shortbread, doughnuts, slices, tarts? The options and flavour combinations are endless. And, there are similarities in the creation of each.

There’s usually a mixing bowl, wet and dry ingredients, often an oven, and a mess in the kitchen. But watching someone bake focaccia bread, and applying that same process and ingredients to baking a chocolate cake is never going to compute.

Yet, it doesn’t make either of them wrong. Just different.

Initially, learning that the origins of the five stages of grief model wasn’t actually designed for people like me (a chocolate cake trying to be focaccia bread perhaps…) was a relief.

And then it made me mad. All the guilt, shame, worry, and anxiety surrounding my not grieving “properly” just because of a model for grief that somehow got famous.

I’m not so mad anymore, although it did take time to simmer down and weave in some compassion for myself, and the society and systems that influenced my experience early on. I’m passionate about sharing this with others who have experienced bereavement, and might be wondering why the five stages model has them feeling like a square peg in a round hole.

If that’s you, then remember these two things:

  • The five stages model of grief wasn’t designed for you.
  • While external support is helpful, the only expert in grief is you. Only you know your grief best.

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