If Only There Were Stages to Grief

a bunch of cards scattered on a black table top, some face up and some face down
Image by Shannon / CC BY

My father passed away in mid April, and I’ve been doing my best to deal with my grief since then. These are extraordinarily strange times, what with the global pandemic, confirmed recession and probably economic depression, and large-scale demonstrations protesting police brutality and racial inequality.

Even without 2020 being ridiculous on the grand scale, my own personal world feels like a very different place without my father in it. And I’ve been doing my best to work out what that means for me. It hasn’t always been pretty, but I do my best.

Some of my efforts have been formal, structured. A good friend sent me a book and an accompanying workbook on grief. I’d been planning on maybe writing some essays about what I was discovering as I worked through them. But while I love the book — and the tone is perfect — it keeps referring to the stages of grief model. And it’s really distracting for me.

Because the stages of grief model isn’t supported by empirical evidence.

The Most Popular Model of Grief Isn’t Supported by Empirical Evidence

I’ve written about this before, as part of a response to a reader letter:

Part of the issue, I think, stems from the fact that people really do think there’s a normal way to grieve. There isn’t.  But somewhere along the way people came to believe that. The most likely explanation for this is the incredible popularity of  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model. According to the model, grief moves through five distinct stages:

denial

anger

bargaining

depression

acceptance

And even though the model had been originally developed from her work with a small number of terminally ill patients coming to terms with their mortality, Kübler-Ross later expanded the claims surrounding her model by arguing that it could be be applied to any form of personal loss, including losing one’s job, grieving the death of another person, romantic breakups or divorce, rejection, etc.

Her idea spread like wildfire. It is referenced widely and has reached broad acceptance, appearing regularly in pop culture. A lot of people believe it.

There’s only one problem with that: There’s no empirical evidence that it’s true.

In fact, studies (for example, this one from JAMA as well as this one) have largely debunked the idea that grief is predictable and moves through all of these stages in this order. Instead, grief is incredibly individual. From person to person. And yes, it doesn’t even always obey a clear pattern throughout an individual’s life. Certain losses will hit us harder than others in a way that’s hard to explain, especially while we’re going through it.

If Only There Were Stages to Grief

Those who argue in favor of the Kübler-Ross model say that the model still has value even though you don’t move through the stages in order. That it’s more of an asynchronous set of stages that can happen at any time.

Once you’ve made that single provision, it already feels like the model is losing its utility. But it gets even worse when you think about the fact that you don’t have to go through all of these stages. And that… you can actually feel a lot of very powerful things that aren’t even on this list, not even if you stretch the boundaries of what any of them mean. (So there are potentially extra hidden stages not listed on the model. Hmm…)

And I definitely feel like the term “stage” makes it sound so much more orderly than how it feels when you’re going through it. Or, as it actually happens, you’re moving back and forth between a feeling over and over again.

You have to do a lot of work to make the stages of grief model fit — and by the time you do that, it’s practically lost all of its utility.

It’s basically a rather incomplete list of a way that people can feel when they’re grieving. And that’s fine. But grief is such a heavy task, it requires a lot more explanation than that.

That’s why I prefer the ball in the box model. Where grief attacks are unpredictable and never quite go away, even though they tend to occur less frequently as time goes on.

Because grief does change. But it’s not orderly. And it’s not predictable. It doesn’t ever feel or behave anything like what you think of when you think of stages. And having any expectation that it will be that way going in makes it much harder.

I Suspect I’ll Return to the Book

I suspect I’ll return to the book eventually, even so, knowing that. I’ll just keep my reservations about the stages of grief in mind, squeezed in like a mental asterisk.

And when I do, perhaps I’ll even write about it.

*

Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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