“What Stage Am I In?”

By Michelle Gladu, LMSW – Bereavement Counselor

Chances are you have heard about the “stages” of grief – possibly even before you experienced the death of someone close to you. Many researchers have developed ideas about grief stages, but those that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first outlined in 1969 have become the most well-known. They have even made their way into popular culture. I once received a birthday card that listed the five stages of birthday “grief” over getting older! Not as many people know that these five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – were originally developed by Kubler-Ross through her work with people who were dying. She identified these feelings among those who were experiencing grief as they anticipated the end of their lives, rather than the grief of survivors. Once Kubler-Ross wrote about the stages, however, the public seemed eager to apply them to grief over many types of losses. 

It’s easy to see why thinking about grief in stages would be appealing. Stages help create a sense of structure and predictability to the chaotic feelings people experience after the death of a loved one. They can also be a way to mark progress through grief when it can feel endless. “If I can just get to stage 5, then I will feel better again!” Despite there being some benefits to thinking of grief in stages, it can also create problems. We may believe (or others may tell us) that if we are not going through these stages in an orderly fashion we are not grieving the “right” way. More recently grief researchers and counselors have come to see that these feelings are not really “stages” of grief, but represent just a few of the many thoughts and emotions that can occur during a person’s grief journey. Kubler-Ross herself also recognized this later in her career. Some of these feelings may not occur at all. Not everyone experiences intense anger with their grief, for example. On the other hand, most people experience many more feelings than just the ones named in the five stages. They can occur back and forth or at the same time. There are many individual differences and no specific timetable.

So can we make any sense of grief? Many grieving individuals I meet are under the impression that they must complete the stages of grief and THEN try to move ahead with their lives. The reality is that most people’s grief looks something like two lanes on a highway, both going in the same direction. One lane represents all the thoughts and feelings a person experiences as they deal with the death of a loved one. The other lane represents adjusting to life without the loved one while carrying on with day-to-day responsibilities. People move back and forth in these two lanes over time and, just like changing lanes on a real highway, the transitions are not always smooth. But eventually, these lanes merge into one as we learn to incorporate loss into our lives and go forward.