How much time have you spent trying to memorize the five stages of grief theory and all its details? Or maybe you’ve spent hours on the internet, trying to learn about all of the historical theories on grief and how they might help you? Whether you are grieving actively for the first time in your life or you’re like me, and you’ve carried a thread of loss throughout your entire existence, you are never more than one degree away from a person who thinks the five stages of grief are a formula for healing. So let’s spend a few minutes this week disassembling the stages and other theories to find what may actually be true or helpful in these frameworks as we grieve.
Before we begin, please do not worry about taking notes. This conversation is available as a transcript on my website, but I also want you to understand I’m introducing a quick flyover of grief theories to make a point, not create a lecture on the history of grief studies. Internalizing all this info isn’t for your benefit, so we’re just talking our way through the pathway of grief work as it is today so you can create a little softer understanding for yourself – and maybe understand the overwhelm of it all a bit better. So take a breath, and just listen.
We’ll start with the most familiar – the five stages of grief, as identified by well known psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The idea most people have about these stages is that as we grieve, we are all going to go through these experiences and typically, in a linear style fashion. But that’s where we get it wrong and usually, stumble forward in our grief until we finally trip hard enough to ask for help.
The first thing you need to know about these stages is that this is not the first grief theory put forward. Her book, On Death and Dying, emerged in 1969 as a result of her work with dying patients. She observed the terminally ill experiencing these “basic” stages of expression as they wrestled with their own impending deaths. What this tells us is that the five stages of grief are a pathway of understanding for those of us who work with the dying or within the dying process. But for those of us who live on? The framework is deeply lacking.
Prior to Kubler-Ross’s work, a theory emerged in the 40s from a psychiatrist named Erich Lindemann, who focused on the symptoms of grief and methodology to overcome including emancipation of your bondage to the deceased, readjustment to your new environment without them, and pursuing the formation of new relationships. Summed up? I think this is where we get the “move on” mindset today. And prior even to Lindemann was Freud, who theorized that in order to recover from grief, we must express ourselves and emotionally detach from the deceased.
I’m personally grateful that I’m not the only one to believe all three of these are lacking, as evidenced by later grief theories in the 80s, 90s, and even today. But before we get to it, I want to make sure we don’t skip over British psychologist and attachment theorist John Bowlby.
Bowlby’s work, like Freud and Lindemann before him, focused on the mental and behavioral impact of grief and therefore, put it down that we could think our way through the pain by addressing our childhood attachments and the way they impact our daily lives now. Bowlby theorized the following as the four stages of grief:
- Shock and numbness.
- Yearning and searching.
- Disorganization and despair.
- Reorganization and repair.
And again, there’s nothing inherently negative about this theory. In many ways, having a grid to understand your loss and what you’re experiencing can be comforting and offer guidance of what to look for as you progress in your grief work.
I’m not going to spend too much time breaking down the various grief theories set forth since the 80s, but I do want to emphasize what changed in the field of psychology.
What we now know about grief work is the importance of the individual experience. The theorists of the early 19th century and through part of the 20th century like Freud approached grief as a disorder, looking for a cure and recovery. Later in the 20th century you start to see the mind/behavior adjustment approach showing up in the work of Bowlby and others, such as with Worden’s Tasks of Mourning and Rando’s 6 R Processes of Mourning. Grief was largely believed to be another task to check and thanks to Lindemann, who gave us the phrase “grief work,” even today we can marry ourselves to the idea of that work giving us a satisfying outcome – a production that eventually comes to a nice close.
Thankfully, this later wave of psychology and grief work approaches humans from a more collaborative process. You’re not a diseased individual, pathologized and beholden to an expert for recovery. You’re not a thinking and doing machine in need of a partial adjustment. You are a holistic being, with thoughts, feelings, emotions, and connections that are all working in tandem to experience deeply meaningful relationships with others, yourself, and the community around you.
So what does all of this mean for us? It means we’re not wrong to start with the five stages of grief. They’re a gentle, welcoming, and easy stepping stone toward the more complex, dare I say meaningful work we want to do with ourselves.
This matters greatly because anyone who has grieved will tell you that they didn’t realize the five stages were completely unhelpful when grief really knocks at the door. They’re the sterilized, socially comfortable way we address grief. They’re the hope for a prescription when grief arrives; something we keep on the shelf as predictive in case we start grieving for ourselves.
It’s also not wrong to study earlier theories and understand the foundation of grief work as we approach it today, although I would strongly encourage anyone going down those paths to do so with eyes wide open. We’ve developed further theories of grief work for good reason.
The last thing I want you to really know about these theories and stages of grief is this: No theory is going to perfectly describe what you experience in grief. The way these models of grieving help us is to give us the language around what we might be experiencing, and a pathway to follow if we feel a little lost. If you want to explore more about them, by all means – it could be a really helpful foundation for you to find a new way forward.
Personally, I don’t revisit these models. I want to honor the work of the past, but I recognize the shortcomings of believing grief is to be pathologized, or that we can “mind over matter” ourselves through loss. It’s also helpful for me to remember that my experiences of loss are much wider than death, which is also not something easily addressed through the various stages or bereavement models.
In short, you are the one that creates the right pathway for yourself by actively participating in your own grief work and healing. When you intentionally grieve, I don’t expect that you are simply existing in a state of ongoing sorrow. It means we are choosing to be present in our grief experience. It’s happening – to us and around us – whether we like it or not. Our desires to be unaffected by loss will be ignored by the universe. So we have a choice – and while not choosing is always an option, I suspect your time spent listening to this show means you’re invested in the outcome.
I want to wrap this up with a quick visit to positive psychology and the work of Dr. Martin Seligman. If you haven’t listened to the interview on the show with Dr. Lucy Hone on resilience and toxic positivity, go back and do so – it’s episode 85.
Seligman’s research into the nature of positive psychology and Dr. Hone’s work as a resilience psychologist come together with a reminder that what we believe about a thing influences the way that thing impacts our lives.
Whether or not we believe we can find healing is true – and I’m not saying the optimists among us will survive loss better than others. The skills of resilience are learned skills – our thoughts can be changed, and the way we approach our own grief experience can change, too. As we engage our grief experience, and learn to navigate the lighter and heavier parts of it with compassionate curiosity, all those theories take the back seat to our true, real, and honest lived experience.
The meaningful things we offer ourselves in grief make the mountains climbable, and we find those meaningful things by asking ourselves what we want instead of trying to live out grief theories from once upon a time. There will be days that inaction and rest are the course of action for our healing, and that is just as valid an approach as journaling, talk therapy, movement, somatic embodiment work, or taking a baseball bat to an old piece of office equipment. So the next time your grief knocks, answer the door. You are far more equipped to do this work than you realize.
Thank you for listening to episode 102 of Restorative Grief. I understand the hesitation – believe me – to learning more about loss. But you disempower your brilliant mind and discredit your resilient heart when you insulate yourself against your grief. Give yourself credit for all the strength and sorrow you’ve carried at the same time. Both things are true – and all parts of you deserve compassion.
If this is your first time joining us on the show, thank you so much for making space. It is my great joy to have these conversations for you to find your own way forward through loss. You can learn more about my work at MandyCapehart.com, where you’ll find links to join our Patreon, become a premium podcast subscriber, or even learn about one-on-one coaching if you’re interested in going deeper. Links to the site, my book, and the free private coaching group are all in the show notes so take a moment to check those out and leave a review, too! I love hearing how this work shows up for you all. Thank you to each of the Patrons of the show; it’s an honor to have you in my corner.
And as always, one last thing before we go. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening – I’ll see you next week.
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