Five stages of grief: Do they exist? Does it matter?

The idea of grief being expressed in predictable emotional stages dates back to the 1960s, writes Claudia Hammond at the BBC. But recent studies in the last decade suggest that reality is seldom so neatly defined. Her story is an interesting history of the science behind a popular idea, but also makes me curious. Is there a value to the five stages of grief even if they aren't strictly 100% accurate? For instance, if it gets average people to accept their own emotions or to understand that grief can be expressed in different ways, is that valuable socially ... even if the exact framework isn't valuable scientifically?


  1. I’m not sure clinicians dealing with grief actually expect the classic five states as such.  It’s still useful in recognizing the different emotional reactions grief can produce.

    1. I don’t think Kubler-Ross herself expected everybody to move through the five stages on a planned schedule.  In her original work, she makes clear that some people skip some stages, and some people will experience them in a different order.  However, not everybody who quotes this popular idea has actually read Kubler-Ross.

      But it’s a fun idea to abuse, because it makes such good satire.

    2.  There are a lot of very average, very naive, well-meaning clinicians who cling to anything that has memorable “steps” or “stages” as a kind of life raft because their ability to manage complexity and synthesize knowledge from multiple domains is limited, and there’s nothing worse than sitting with a client with a totally blank mind if you are already prone to anxiety and under-confidence.

      I have taught and supervised quite a few.

      This article is going up in my online courseroom the next time we cross paths with material on aging, grief, and loss.  Because it may be quixotic, but I’m going to teach some of those folks critical thinking skills or die trying.  (And if I have to sit through another presentation on the “five stages” which has obviously been produced by simply inserting the term “grief” into Google, I will off myself.)

  2. The danger is that either people will start imitating behaviour they think they ought to show or they become distressed because they don’t feel how popular culture tells them to feel. Both will interfere with their ability to normally process an already traumatic event. Nothing good comes of pop culture prescribing how you must feel.

    1. I thought that it was an antidote to the idea that you should just “get over it”, which has been the standard approach to grief (at least in the US) for some decades now.

      1. Of course you are right that now you are at least allowed to express emotion which is a huge improvement for most people but the expectation that you then *must* show emotion is troubling to the more stoic among us.

        1. If someone is expecting you to do anything while you’re grieving, you actually DO have the right to tell them to mind their own business. I’ve gone through grieving several times, and no one I know was actually ragingly dickish enough to inquire as to whether I was in the appropriate stage of grief. If you are surrounded by people who would do this, I suggest you acquire some friends who aren’t total f$%kheads.

      2.  Yes but now we’re in the era of Dr. Phil and all pop psychology, all the time, meaning all kinds of ignorant laypeople are perfectly happy to lecture you about psychological phenomena they know nothing about other than what’s been featured on some half-remembered episode of Oprah.  (See also:  5 stages of grief, “codependency,” birth order, how “real” rape victims act and feel, how all mass shooters are obviously “mentally ill,” pretty much anything the public has to say about addiction, every conversation about trans people ever…)

    2. Wut. “Imitating behaviour they think they ought to show” – only if they’re mentally disturbed before the onset of grieving. Mentally healthy people don’t actually behave like that. If you have some proof that they do, please show it. The stages are a rough model for the experience of grieving. I’m pretty confident that everyone understands that. It’s not a “prescription” from “pop culture.”

      1. “Mentally healthy people don’t actually behave like that. If you have some proof that they do, please show it.”

        Every closeted homosexual and christian “ex”-gay. People like conforming to social norms, even at the cost of becoming intensely unhappy privately.

        1. I hope you’re not saying that the nearly universal experience of grief and the experience being a pariah in a dangerously repressive community are comparable. Because they really, really aren’t.

  3. When I first read the Epic of Gilgamesh (specifically the Gardner/Maier translation) I was going through a period of grief. I was struck how, after the death of Enkidu, the story seems to become a metaphor for the five stages, with Gilgamesh himself going from shock to acceptance.

    I realize any emotion is complex and sweeping conclusions about how we experience emotions should be taken with a ton of salt, but, speaking from my own personal experience, I can say that both the narrative and its implication that I was not alone, that others had been through what I was going through, were helpful. 

  4. It is valuable, in that it give grieving people the feeling of direction, a map out of a place and time in their lives where and when they feel they have lost, among other things, a sense of orientation. When grieving one often feels completely lost. So even if this map isn’t entirely accurate, it is a thread that can be felt through the darkness. It is at least as useful as any placebo in that sense.

    1.  Unless your experience of grief isn’t proceeding as “prescribed.”  See also:  rape survivors who don’t experience “rape trauma syndrome.”

  5. While we recognize the Kubler-Ross model we also recognize the fact that grief is unique. Not everyone will go through all the stages nor will they go through the stages in the same way. Just as Erikson’s stages of development or Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences are recognized as ways of viewing human growth and intelligence they are not set in stone as the end all and be all, neither is Kubler-Ross.

    1. Right. I’ve experienced the grieving process, but skipped the “bargaining” stage. I was still kind of darkly amused at how my emotional states otherwise roughly cleaved to the model.

  6. What you have to recognize is that psychology is a soft science. The data that it deals with is more or less subjective and the findings derived from them always somewhat questionable.
    The five stages of grief were postulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, based on her clinical experience. The lack of hard scientific method makes the findings closer to philosophical construct than fact.
    That doesn’t make them invalid as long they are useful. Apparently they are useful.

  7. This might be overly pedantic, but EKR was writing about death and dying, not grief. As she wrote it, DABDA were the 5 stages of a person coming to grips with his own mortality.

  8. Your link through Anonymouse is being blocked as spam/fraud.  My guess is that enough people have used that link redirector to hide malware that it’s now tripping flags, and I was able to retrieve the original URL, but I thought you might want to know

  9. A friend of mine lost his daughter last year.  A couple of months after she died, he received some mail from the hospital talking about the process of grief.  “You may well be feeling foo, bar, blah.”  I remember his attitude changing significantly after this.  “They reminded me that it was normal to feel like this, and that I wasn’t broken.”

    So yes, I think that they’re a valuable concept even if they don’t map cleanly to reality.

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