Are Grieving Stages The Same For Everyone?
There is no road map for grief. The process of grieving is as complex and varied as those who experience it. Attempts by psychological professionals and researchers to describe “stages” of grieving are only intended to provide signposts to help mourners navigate the grim landscape of grief.
Lessons from the Past
Research on mourning can provide the bereaved with knowledge and insight based on the experiences of those who have come before them. However, the process of grief for each individual need not occur in a predetermined sequence. In fact, pressure to conform to a particular model or style of grieving can be counterproductive. If you are facing grief over some type of loss, take heart in the knowledge that there is more than one way to grieve.Noted grief expert David Kessler writes that the stages of grief “are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.
Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember, your grief is as unique as you are.”
The Solitude of Grief
If this is the case, then what aspects of grief are consistently experienced? We know that grief is always both painful and personal. As Solomon wrote in Proverbs 14:10a, “Each heart knows its own bitterness.” There is no one else on earth who fully understands the nature of your grief. You are the only person who knows what it is like to face the pain of your loss.
This can be a lonely reality, but it is also validating to know that your personal grief is no less legitimate or “correct” than anyone else’s. When you are grieving, a good counselor will empathize with your experience of grief without criticizing it or pretending to know exactly how you feel.
Hope in the Midst of Grief
There is someone who does know your heart, and Scripture assures us that one day “He will wipe every tear from [your] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Since we know that all grieving will ultimately be comforted by Christ, who is “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), we do not mourn like those who “have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
However, Jesus validated how poignant and profound grief is by His participation in it during his time on earth. The shortest verse in the Bible is also one of the most powerful. John tells us that at the grave of his beloved friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Although Jesus knew that He was about to miraculously raise Lazarus from the dead, in His humanity He felt the pain of loss that those all around Him were experiencing.
In the simple act of weeping, Christ identified with all those who have ever experienced the heartache of grief in this world. And in the act of raising Lazarus from the dead, He demonstrated the eternal hope of victory over death that is ours in Him (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Grief as a Lifelong Journey
Grief should never be approached as a process aimed at an end-goal. This is one of the flaws with attempting to prescribe “stages” that appear to progress toward ultimately leaving grief behind. Counselors and psychologists focus their efforts on methods that will increase the ability of the bereaved to adapt to the reality of loss and to function and move forward. However, regardless of the amount of progress one makes, the grieving process may never be fully complete in this life.
Those in the midst of grief may understandably feel eager to “move through the stages” in order to reach an end to their intense suffering, but grief is not pathological, it is human. It is not a disease to be cured, it is a lifelong process of healing, remembering, and honoring the lost.
The latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which mental health professionals use to diagnose patients, contains the following caveat in the section about depressive disorders that highlights the importance of distinguishing between grief or bereavement and mental disorder:
“Careful consideration is given to the delineation of normal sadness and grief from a major depressive episode. Bereavement may induce great suffering, but it does not typically induce an episode of major depressive disorder.”
Thus, even when it stems from the best of intentions, an end-goal oriented approach to grieving often undermines the meaning of the grief, which includes the depth of love from which it stems. It is natural to continually grieve the loss of a dearly beloved friend or relative for an entire lifetime. Rather than pressuring you to “move past” your grief, a good counselor can help you learn to live with your grief and move forward while honoring the deceased.
A Testimony of Love
As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” In the wake of his cherished wife’s death, Lewis poignantly described the irreversible change that occurs with such a devastating loss. Even the person who has “gotten over” the death of his beloved, Lewis argues, will continue to experience the effects of the loss throughout his life.
Lewis goes on: “He will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off.”
Grief is directly related to love. It is a testimony of the depth of love. To even make an attempt at describing this, we will have to venture beyond the confines of science into the realm of poetry. The great Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote:
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
Gibran’s words remind us of the beauty and love that lie beneath the pain of mourning. The Jewish poet Yehuda he-Levi wrote these moving words about grief:
“‘Tis a human thing, love
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched”
Activators of Grief
I want to pause here to point out that grief is activated by many different types of traumatic experiences, and is not limited to the death of a loved one. While bereavement over the death of someone close is rightfully considered the quintessential form of grief, there are many different types of loss.
For example, grief can come as the result of any of the following, among others:
- Death of a loved one
- Death of a pet
- Loss of a job
- Loss of physical/mental capacities
- Separation from a loved one
- End of a friendship/relationship
The mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual effects of tragic circumstances like these often share similar attributes, which is why we can refer to all of them as forms of grieving or mourning.
Now that we have established that there is no “right” way to grieve, I want to turn to some of the prominent models of grieving in order to glean from them what can benefit a person facing grief.
The Five Stages of Grief
Perhaps the most well-known psychological study ever conducted is Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of death, which were originally published in her book On Death and Dying in 1969.
Kübler-Ross’s seminal ideas have become well known even in pop-culture. Many people today can recite the stages, which were initially designed to help those facing the prospect of their own death, but were later adapted for those facing grief in the book On Grief and Grieving by Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, published in 2005.Although the stages have often been trivialized or misunderstood as overly simplistic, they have been invaluable for bringing the topics of death and grief into public discourse. Thus, even when the stages of grief are critiqued within the field, it is with a certain level of respect.
In an article entitled Why the Five Stages of Grief are Wrong, psychology professor David Feldman points out, “If you already are familiar with the stages of grief, you have psychiatrist and visionary death-and-dying expert Elizabeth Kübler-Ross to thank for it. Through her many books and tireless activism, Kübler-Ross managed to change how much of the world thought about death. She helped soften some of the stigma that had previously been present, making it a little more okay to talk about and get support for loss.”
Here are the stages of grief, adapted from Kübler-Ross’s stages of death:
Denial is a common response to the immediate shock that occurs with devastating news of loss. It is often a coping mechanism that helps us survive loss at its most acutely painful moments.
Anger can actually be helpful because it is something real that we can allow ourselves to feel, rather than becoming numb. The anger can be directed at many different things, but underneath the anger is always pain. The more intense the love for the lost, the more intense the anger often is.
This reaction is often the first attempt to proactively address the pain of loss. It may be irrational to bargain about something that is unchangeable, but grief is not a rational state. We will grasp at anything that feels as though it might remove the pain or undo the loss.
This is grief at its deepest level, a shift of focus onto the pain that is being felt in the present moment. It can feel overwhelming and even hopeless. However, depression is an understandable reaction to loss and a necessary step toward healing.
This does not mean we forget about the lost and move on. Acceptance is facing the reality of the loss and learning how to exist in a world where our loved one is missing. This is an important step because it gives us an opportunity to celebrate and preserve the legacy of the lost.
The Four Tasks of Mourning
Another useful model of grief is William J. Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning. Worden’s “tasks” are helpful because they provide an active role for the griever rather than postponing grief until some later time. This has a way of helping people move beyond the pronounced denial of loss that is often felt initially, especially in the case of sudden or unexpected death.
Worden believed that actively working through these tasks (which are intentionally broad and open to a variety of experiences) is necessary in order for “equilibrium to be reestablished.”
1. To accept the reality of the loss
2. To work through the pain of grief
3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
4. To find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life
Interestingly, task four used to be “To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life,” but Worden revised his list to highlight the importance of maintaining an appropriate, ongoing emotional connection with a lost loved one while continuing to move forward in life.
Counseling for Grief
If you or someone you know is facing grief of any kind, a Christian counselor can patiently provide support, empathy, and gentle guidance during this difficult time. Counseling is a safe space to grieve in your own unique way. A good counselor will honor your grief and the depth of love it represents. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
American Psychiatric Association, (2013), Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th edition) (DSM-5), Washington, D.C.
Feldman, David B. (2017, July 7). Why the Five Stages of Grief are Wrong: Lessons from the (non-)stages of grief. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/supersurvivors/201707/why-the-five-stages-grief-are-wrong
Kessler, David. A Message from David Kessler. Retrieved from https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/
Lewis, C. S. (1968). A grief observed. London: Faber & Faber.
Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York: Springer Pub.
“Down,” courtesy of Joshua Earle, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fading,” courtesy of Jerry Keisewetter, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Struggling,” courtesy of Nick Karvounis, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Burn,” courtesy of Joanna Kosinska, unsplash.com, CC0 License