Those Famous 5 Stages of Grief: Hogwash?

griefLoss —if we’ve been paying attention and are older than 12—is a recurrent theme in all our lives. You don’t have to identify as a Bright to have dealt with grief or to realize you will face grieving someday.

I’d often read about the so-called five stages of grief, first espoused by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross more than 40 years ago. But when I recently read a little deeper, I found that the psychology of loss and grieving may have been shortchanged by the way this single theory gained such widespread  popular media acceptance.

In a nutshell, Kubler-Ross and her proponents posited that every person grieving a serious loss goes through the following five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

What I’d particularly wondered about was whether we modern humans, in fact we Brights, could grieve in our own idiosyncratic ways, without necessarily needing professional help and without being concerned that we were doing something wrong.

The Truth about Grief: The Myth of its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, tackles heavy-duty misconceptions in an encouraging way. It’s a science-based yet sensitive and thought-provoking look at how society constructs attitudes about loss, and how such attitudes may not be the most helpful for everyone.

Konigsberg explains that not everyone heals from horrific loss the same way, that most people recover with or without counseling about equally well, and that it’s possible for some to accept their losses and move on in only half a year. Not that everyone can or will, but it’s good to know that you needn’t necessarily suffer both wrenching loss and many years of unremitting misery when someone you love dies.


  • Talking about your loss isn’t always necessary or best for healing.
  • So-called “complicated grief” that goes on for years isn’t very common.
  • Resilience in the face of very disruptive events is common and doesn’t mean there is a lack of feelings or that anything pathological is going on.

Konigsberg also explores the way grief professionals make money from the commercialization of grief. Many of them turn to this field after experiencing a major loss of their own, but, she writes, “Using personal experience or anecdote instead of research to guide treatment has been a big problem with applied thanatology all along.”

Perhaps the best counselor (whether friend or professional) for a Bright would be someone with a similar life view, that is, one who won’t try to comfort you with the false hope that you’ll meet your lost loved one in another life.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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7 Responses to Those Famous 5 Stages of Grief: Hogwash?

  1. Rose Arem says:

    Interesting thoughts by reviewer & author. Yes, grief is different for everyone but don’t most people, including Brights, understand this? The idea of stages are often helpful to understand what one is going through and knowing that it is “normal”. It’s the so called. ” timing ” of it all that often seems bothersome, so we should all throw out “the clock.”

    • You’re right, of course, though some individuals might not even notice going through certain stages, say denial. Let’s throw out the clock and also the idea that any one person’s grief has to be normal according to some other person’s idea. We can leave it at something like this: We all go through different periods during mourning, it’s not one static thing, and some of what you experience may feel like this or that. All knowledge is good, certainly. But let’s be flexible with the theories and let the grieving individuals feel what they can’t help but feel anyway.

  2. Kayleigh says:

    I always read your stuff. It is excellent, and this article in particular is helpful to me.

    It isn’t exactly what you are talking about, because a relative I love and care for has a terminal illness. I am actually grieving in advance of her death as I see the changes.

    I am going to go to these the resources you mention, so I do thank you.

    • I’m pleased you found the post of interest. I tend to grieve (at least partially) in advance, though I don’t know if it’s so much a choice. It might be interesting to know, in some more definite way, if doing so in advance helps in any way when the feared outcome happens.

      • Robert says:

        It seems to me that a rational outlook acknowledges future loss. Though this can be a little painful, it helps us determine how to get the most out of the moment. And yes, I think it helps ground you during difficult times.

  3. Phyo says:

    I’ve just read the Time article to get a sumarmy of the author’s thinking. As a clergyperson for almost 30 years, I’ve seen a number of people live through loss and grief in a variety of ways, and have done so myself. I have found that people often experience the feelings that Kubler-Ross’s identified (as well as others), but it is been clear to me for many years that we do not expereince those feelings in systematic stages, but rather in unpredictable roller-coaster fashion not unlike the oscillating graph shown on this site. My own (admittedly anectodatal) take on grief is that the plethora of intense feelings we typically have for some period of time are the psyche’s way of honoring the importance to us of the person (or job or marriage or ) that have been lost. Once we have done that to the degree each needs, we are ready to move on in our lives. What I continue to observe is that while the varieties of approaches to grief process described and debunked in the Time article are widespread in the culture, it is also the case that in practical terms our culture often leaves little space and time for grieving. People are routinely expected to be able to return to normal functioing, especially in the work world, within a week or two of a major loss as if nothing significant had happened. There seems to be a disconnect between the possibly over-developed psychological approach to the inner work of grief and an under-developed acknowledgement in the public world of the functional challenges that people in the early, intense time of grieving often face.

    • Very insightful, and thank you for contributing to the conversation. I hadn’t thought of that angle, how the business world and the public in general have no time for or understanding of a person going through a time of intense grieving. Comments like, “Are you STILL…?!” are so emotionally stingy and unhelpful.

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