THE MYTH OF THE STAGES OF GRIEF Posted on April 15, 2021, updated on May 11, 2023 by Gateway Counseling Most people have heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you do a web search, you will find there are additional models with further stages: some espouse six, seven stages of grief, others ten, and even one with twelve. Now if this is starting to make your head spin or you’re wondering which stage you may be in currently, I’m going to release you from this burden – DON’T WORRY. You do not need to concern yourself about what stage you’re potentially experiencing or if you’ve completed it satisfactorily. Although models can be helpful at times, they do not ever fully capture the complexity of human experience. Grief, like everything else in life, is very individualized. Moreover, I have never seen grief occur in a linear fashion. Myths About The Stages What the majority of individuals don’t know is that the stages of grief were developed by a woman named Elisabeth Kubler Ross. She was researching the process of how terminally ill patients came to acceptance of their death, not on those who were grieving the loss of others. What she discovered was that those who were able to achieve a state of peace and acceptance of their mortality went through somewhat of a process or stages to arrive at this state. My motivation in writing this article is to clarify misperceptions about the process of grieving in order to assist others in navigating it more effectively and hopefully with less pain. Grief brings enough of its own. Two Negative Dynamics There are two negative dynamics that can be experienced when holding to the false view of grief having five stages. The first can be the shock that occurs when you believe you have completed a “stage” and it returns. You can feel as if you’re moving towards acceptance only to wake up one day and be overwhelmed with feelings of sadness or anger. This leads to the second negative outcome: you experience shame because you believe somehow you are grieving incorrectly. I have had numerous clients become self-critical, or receive negative comments from others, due to a belief they should be farther along in their grieving process. Non-linear and Individualized Again, I would like to emphasize grief is a very non-linear process and uniquely individualized. There are so many variables that impact the duration and intensity of grief. For instance, losing a parent or child is going to be much more difficult and traumatic than the loss of a casual friend. Furthermore, the availability and access to emotionally secure relationships is a major factor in how long grief will endure. There are also things that can impede the normal grieving process, such as trauma and guilt. In some situations, there may have been unresolved conflict between a person and the deceased. In addition, there may have been a failed effort to save the individual physically, such as in a cardiac arrest, auto accident, combat, or drug overdose. Trauma and Grief Trauma and grief are often intertwined. Although grief can be intense on its own, certain incidents of loss can also generate PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In this case, the normal flow of grief is blocked by trauma. The trauma must be processed before the grief can then organically resolve itself. If the loss held a sufficient level of shock or there were insufficient relational resources to process the event afterward, there is likely to be trauma involved. There is a variety of efficacious trauma therapies, such as Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that can rapidly process the trauma symptoms and assist with the grief as well. These approaches can also help resolve any related guilt and shame that may be associated with the loss. Complicated Bereavement A little-discussed feature of grief that can lead to what is referred to as complicated bereavement is the death of an abusive or addicted parent or partner. This makes for a very complex grieving process. When you experience this type of attachment, it leads to many conflicting emotions: love, anger, resentment, longing, fear, sadness, shame, etc. Grieving this type of relationship comes with a plethora of conflicting emotions. My advice is to allow yourself to experience all of these feelings. Don’t attempt to censor or shame yourself for missing the person or remembering good things about them in the midst of all the negative memories and emotions. Family and friends often do not understand how someone could miss the person or remember good things about them after being abused by the individual, which then adds a level of shame to an already painful and confusing loss. It may be necessary to obtain a professional to help walk you through the complexity of this process. Find Your Own Way Finally, be true to yourself and find your own way. Be open to support and feedback but do it the way that feels right to you. No one can tell you how to grieve or how long it should take. There is no formula. You can take aspects of what has helped others, but it needs to feel authentic to you. Life is too messy and complicated to fit neatly into some model. In my view, nothing explains everything. Use various approaches for what they are worth but know they will all have their limitations. If you would like more information about grief and loss or are in need of grief counseling, please feel free to contact me at Gateway Counseling anytime at 561-468-6464.