Anyone who starts reading about bereavement will soon come across people talking about the five stages of grief. It’s mentioned so often as an established theory that many people accept it as fact. But what are the five stages of grief, and are there really set stages that everyone passes through?
Are there really five set stages that everyone passes through in order?
In our work with bereaved people we know that many of us are shocked and distressed by the strength of our feelings after someone dies. It’s common to feel like we are going mad, and especially in the early stages we really need to know that we won’t always feel this awful.
At this point sometimes someone often sends us information on the five stages of grief. It can be very comforting to think that grief is a predictable journey, and that at some point we will reach the final stage and be able to move on with our lives.
However, we know that real life is never quite that simple. Everyone is unique and everyone’s grief is unique too. There are no set stages or phases that everyone passes through. It is however possible pick out certain feelings and experiences which are very common.
What are the five stages of grief?
The five stages of grief model was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and became famous after she published her book On Death and Dying in 1969. Kübler-Ross developed her model to describe people with terminal illness facing their own death. But it was soon adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general.
The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are often introduced as if we progress through the stages in an orderly fashion, moving from one stage to the other. You might hear people say things like ‘Oh I’ve moved on from denial and now I think I’m entering the angry stage’. But doctors, counsellors and grief experts know that this is rarely if ever the case.
In fact Kübler-Ross, in her writing, makes it clear that the stages are non-linear – people can experience these aspects of grief at different times. You might not experience all of the stages, and you might find feelings are quite different with different bereavements.
It can sometimes help to look at the five stages and see if anything helps us to make sense of our experiences. But we must always remember that every grief journey is unique. It certainly doesn’t mean that something is wrong if you experience a whole mess of different stages and emotions, or if you never pass through some of the ‘stages’.
Feeling numb is common in the early days after a bereavement. Some people at first carry on as if nothing has happened. Even if we know with our heads that someone has died it can be hard to believe in our hearts that someone important is not coming back. It’s also very common to feel the presence of someone who has died, hear their voice or even see them.
Anger is a completely natural emotion, and very natural after someone dies. Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially when we feel someone has died before their time or when we had plans for the future together. It’s also common to feel angry towards the person who has died, or angry at ourselves for things we did or didn’t do or say to the person before their death.
When we are in pain, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there’s nothing we can do to change things. Bargaining is when we start to make deals with ourselves, or perhaps (if we have faith) with God. We want to believe that if we act in particular ways we will feel better. It’s also common to find ourselves going over and over things that happened in the past and asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, wishing we could go back and act differently in the hope things could have turned out differently.
Sadness and longing are perhaps what we think of most often when we think of grief. This pain can be very intense and come in waves over many months or years. Many bereaved people experience feelings of depression following the death of someone close. Life can feel like it no longer holds any meaning and some people feel like they too want to die.
Grief comes in waves and it can feel like nothing will ever be right again. But gradually most people find that the pain eases, and it is possible to accept what has happened. We may never ‘get over’ the death of someone precious, but we can learn to live again, while keeping the memories of those we have lost close to us.
If after time you are not able to come to terms with someone’s death, it can help to talk – to friends, relatives or to Cruse.
Beyond the five stages
Since the five stages were first developed many others have built on this understanding and developed other ways of thinking about grief. Our understanding has grown over the years, building on a wealth of research into the best ways to help and understand bereaved people. We’ll be looking at some of these newer theories in later blog posts.