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The Truth About the Stages of Grief

A popular concept is there that are stages to grief that grievers must proceed through before they can gain any sense of normalcy. Others believe you can never truly recover from grief; that the best you can do create a “new normal” where grief is always lurking to take a swipe at you when you least expect it.

Sigmund Freud was among the first to propose a series of stages to explain human development and adaptation to life changes, followed by other prominent theorists, such as Piaget’s theory of intellectual development, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Erikson’s stages of identity development (Rutjens et al 2013). Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s book about the five stages of dying, first published in the 1960s, gave this concept a huge boost. Since then, her five stages – denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance – have become ubiquitous and applied to many situations.

Megan Divine (2013) in a HuffPost Healthy Living blog post clarifies, “In her later years, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote that she regretted writing the stages the way that she did, that people mistook them as being both linear and universal. Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, Ms. Ross identified five common experiences, not five required experiences. Her stages, whether applied to the dying or those left living, were meant to normalize and validate what someone might experience in the swirl of insanity that is loss and death and grief.”

The result, according to Ms. Divine, is that mental health professionals and the general public alike “believe there is a right way and a wrong way to grieve, that there is an orderly and predictable pattern that everyone will go through, and if you don't progress correctly, you are failing at grief. You must move through these stages completely, or you will never heal.”

Rutjens and his colleagues found that a strong attraction to stage theories, such as Kübler-Ross’, centers “in their ability to provide a sense of order” and meaning in life’s difficult moments. Without commenting on the merits of various stage theories, they concluded, “When randomness lurks, stage theories provide us with the means to let order and predictability prevail over chaos and uncertainty.”

While finding a sense of order where none seems to exist is appealing, it also may be a trap that locks grievers into a cultural belief system that simply is not true and may cause unnecessary suffering and prolong their recovery. What is true is grief is a unique experience. No two grievers will experience grief in the same way or follow the same path. Further, there is no set timeline to recover from grief, but recovery is possible.

Unresolved grief is almost always about things we wished we said or done differently, better or more. It also is about unrealized hopes, expectations and dreams. Discovering these communications, unrealized hopes, expectations and dreams allows grievers to complete what was left unsaid or undone and say good-bye to the pain. This process helps grievers to let go and move on.

Please call me. I can help.

Divine, M. 2013. The five stages of grief and other lies that don’t help anyone. HuffPost Healthy Living. Huffington Post. December 11, 2013. Available online at

Rutjens, B. T., van Harreveld F., van der Pligt, J., Kreemer, L. M., and Noordewier. M. K. (2013). Steps, stages and structure: Finding compensatory order in scientific theories. ​142 (2): 313–318. doi: 10.1037/a0028716

© Ekteleo Ministry, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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