Rethinking Stages of Grief

Grief has been with me for seven long years. It has taken a lot of unpacking and processing to sit where I do today. I recognized early in my grieving that it is about human connection. My experience and journey directed me to formal study, culminating in recognized credentials that will allow me to provide care, and compassion as I support others through their grief and in other hard life situations. In the process I gained a deep understanding of my own lived experiences as well.

As can happen with the learning process, questions can outnumber answers.  How does one connect and relate with those who grieve? What if they are not rational? What if their grief is debilitating, are they now unrelatable? What is the timeline for grief? Is it possible to be stuck in one’s grief?  Are there different seasons of grief? 

There are two grief diagnoses in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 

  • Complicated Grief Disorder “In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble recovering from the loss and resuming your own life.”
  • Prolonged Grief disorder “characterized by this intense and persistent grief that causes problems and interferes with daily life.”

Then several combinations beyond that exist, for example, Uncomplicated Prolonged Grief Disorder.

This information can provide context, but invites more questions. If you have uncomplicated grief yet it is still prolonged, is there something unnatural about the individual so diagnosed? Does that make them stuck in their grief or do they simply lack a toolkit or the necessary support that reassures them they are loved and they belong on this planet, even though the person that they loved so much is now gone? Does pathologizing grief hinder or support the grieving individual? Could it be that the grief process is as unique to the person in the same way as one’s relationship to the deceased is unique? Could it support one person in their healing and hinder others?  The research tends not to favor pathologizing grief rather than support it.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross decades ago came up with the stages of grief, which were widely adopted. Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief may help us to name our feelings and experiences inside of grief, but they were never meant to be a step-by-step prescription for how to move forward. The “stages” originated from Dr. Ross’ observations of the experiences of terminally ill patients. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance reflect how people tend to cope with the reality of death and dying. They were never intended to offer a roadmap for grief.

Our grief is our own and we will move forward with it in our own way, in our own time.  Ironically, Kubler-Ross herself never intended for the stages of grief to be adopted like a guidebook. She wrote an open letter in 2009 discussing her intentions  “The stages of grief were not meant to tell you what you feel, what you should feel, and when exactly you should feel it. They were not meant to dictate whether you are doing your grief ‘correctly’ or not. They were meant to normalize a deeply not-normal time. They were meant to give comfort. Ms. Ross’s work was meant as a kindness, not a cage.”

We may find comfort in naming the stages of grief or in a diagnosis that defines the length or complexity of our grief, but as a nation we do a terrible job supporting people that are grieving.  Buzzy’s Bees mission is “to change the grief culture around the unexpected loss of a child (stillborn to 12 years old) through outreach, education, and programs offering emotional and financial support.”  The creation of the Give Grief a Voice project was a reaction to do better and promote healing in the grief process, giving people a voice and creating a new memory of the child who died. Our informal peer support group connects people whose unthinkable experience of child loss is shared.

Our goal is to come alongside grieving parents with support and resources, without labeling or diagnosing.