Even if you can’t name them all, you have probably heard of the stages of grief. It’s a concept that has become received wisdom in the western world, but it’s one that has often been misinterpreted.
The idea was first introduced in the late 1960s by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who was an expert on death and dying. But she didn’t come up with the stages of grief to describe what happens when you lose a loved one – they were originally based on her studies of terminally-ill patients as they were coming to terms with their prognosis.
The stages were applied to the grieving process later on, as outlined in the book On Grief and Grieving, a book Kübler-Ross co-wrote with grief expert David Kessler.
The five stages of grief they identified were:
- Denial: Shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred.
- Anger: That someone we love is no longer here.
- Bargaining: All the what-ifs and regrets.
- Depression: Sadness from the loss.
- Acceptance: Acknowledging the reality of the loss.
But the authors later acknowledged that these stages were intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Emotions can be messy and can’t be divided up into neat stages with defined beginnings and endings.
And while these five stages can be used as a roadmap while you’re in unfamiliar emotional territory, they don’t always apply when you’re grieving different types of loss, such as loss of a job or career, loss of hopes and dreams, loss of security or safety, loss of freedom, loss of connection, loss of a pet, divorce or separation – the list goes on.
The scientific evidence
However, there appears to be little or no evidence that most people go through most of these stages in this or any order.
According to an article published in Scientific American, University of Memphis psychologist Robert A Neimeyer concluded that: “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”
Grief isn’t linear; it doesn’t work like that. In my experience, grief has no timeline – it can take you over when you least expect it to, months and even years after a loss occurred.
And while it might be useful to have a roadmap as a reference point, there is also a danger that you might start using the stages as benchmarks that you should be hitting in your grieving process.
As David P Feldman, a professor of counselling psychology at Santa Clara University, says in an article published in Psychology Today: “The unfortunate side effect of our society’s erroneous but firm belief in the five stages is that many people wind up criticizing themselves for ‘not doing grief right’. When people buy into the idea that there’s only one healthy way to grieve, then it’s easy for them to attack themselves when they naturally find that they’re doing it differently. This kind of self-criticism never helps anyone.”
Is there a sixth stage of grief?
So what’s the answer? Do we just ignore the stages? No, says Feldman – there are important lessons to be learned from Kübler-Ross’s ground-breaking work. The five stages will be familiar to anyone who has experienced great loss, even if they don’t go through them in order.
In his latest book, Finding Meaning, Kübler-Ross’s co-author David Kessler proposes that there is a crucial sixth stage of grief that helps enormously with the healing process: meaning.
In this stage of grief, you will acknowledge that although grief is likely to lessen in intensity over time, it will never actually end. Finding meaning allows you to transform grief into something rich and fulfilling. But how is this possible?
Kessler writes: “Meaning helps us make sense of grief… It can take many shapes, such as finding gratitude for the time you had with loved ones, or finding ways to commemorate and honor loved ones, or realizing the brevity and value of life and making that the springboard into some kind of major shift or change.”
He says that those who are able to find meaning tend to have a much easier time grieving than those who don’t. They’re less likely to remain stuck in one of the stages.
Here are three of the guiding thoughts he shares:
- Meaning takes time. You may not find it until months or even years after your loss.
- It’s not necessary to understand why someone has died in order to find meaning.
- Meaningful connections will heal painful memories.
How Zgmund App can help you find meaning in grief
If you have suffered a loss of any kind – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when it might not have been possible for you to attend a funeral or grieve with your family – making meaningful social connections can boost your wellbeing.
Zgmund App is a new way of connecting with like-minded people. It offers anonymous emotional support groups where Zgmund’s super-empathic AI creates a safe and supportive space in which you can open up without fear of judgment.
Sharing about your loss and connecting with people about their experience of loss can help you to feel less alone in your grief. It’s a step you can take in making meaning out of your loss, with the compassionate support of others, coming together in common humanity.
Join the Zgmund App waitlist and we’ll send you an invite for an upcoming anonymous session where you can share your thoughts and feelings about your experience of grief.