It's Time to Ditch the 5 Stages Of Grief

Grief, we are told, has a rigid five stages. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneering psychiatrist, proposed this model of grief in her famous treatise On Death and Dying in 1969. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But there is a problem. Kubler-Ross’ work has become somewhat misinterpreted over the years and this has lead to some popular misconceptions about grief and loss.

A particularly critical point that often goes overlooked is that Dr. Kubler-Ross’ stages are for dealing with a person’s impending demise, not the demise of a loved one. As an example, Dr. Kubler-Ross’ hypothesis states that the five stages of grief can be felt in any order. Furthermore additional emotional stages can be present during the process. Most importantly, Dr. Kubler-Ross argues that everyone has a unique process in dealing with their grief.

Researchers have been moving beyond Dr. Kubler-Ross’ for some time. A Yale study found that participants most grievers accept the deaths of their loved ones at the beginning of bereavement. But research shows that the five stages of grief do not occur at all. Predictive stages in psychology have become an antiquated model in psychology, as psychologists have come to realize that hard and universal rules for dealing with a species as varied as humanity is problematic at best and inaccurate at worst.

Clinical research has formed a new budding consensus on bereavement. Columbia clinical psychology professor George Bonanno declares that the stages are not an accurate reflection for dealing with grief. Rather, Bonanno hypothesizes that grief can increase mental acuity and evokes empathy from others. According to Bonanno the five stages of grief model can actually hinder the bereavement process as it will cause sufferers to expect a process that will not occur.

Bonanno proposes that humans are inherently resilient and have the ability to maintain relatively stable in the wake of a tragic event. In The Other Side of Sadness Bonanno’s research finds that two-thirds of grievers are "resilient." Bonanno’s research is unique in that he was the first researcher to use pre-grieving subjects. By establishing a baseline of human behaviour Bonanno has been able to produce more scientifically robust data.

If the process hinders dealing with this grief, there are some potential complications. Brains that have not dealt with grief tend to remain in a condition where a variety of stimuli trigger an emotional response. This system of "rewarding" the brain is similar to the process of falling in love.

After all, different cultures around the world have developed different practices of dealing with grief. And while mental health can be measured to an extent it is a fool’s errand to compare the outcomes of one population versus another in order to determine what is "best." Now clinical psychology has come to a point where universal theories (and stages) regarding bereavement have become a thing of the past.  

In truth grief will always be a condition unique to every individual. By understanding this sufferers can realize that that there are no stages or symptoms to look for; no hurdles that must be cleared before they can get better. It’s time to put Dr Kubler-Ross’ research to bed and move forward.

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James Monteith

James recently completed his MA in Political Science from Carleton University. Previously he earned an Honours BSc from the University of Toronto in Biology. His interests include international relations, drug policy and development.

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