The myth of the “five stages of grief”

01 Dec

We’ve all heard about the five stages of grief, right? Many of us have them memorized, or could name at least two or three of the stages. But, do we know where they came from? Do we know what they are based on? Does it occur to us to question whether or not they are based on actual research? Nine months ago, my answers would have been no, no, and no.

But here I am today, almost nine months after Julian‘s death, with a whole new perspective. As I mentioned in one of my early blog posts, one of the first things I did after I came out of my initial shock was ask a friend, “What are the 5 stages of grief, again?” I wanted a roadmap for my future. I wanted a to-do list. Then, I learned that the theory of “The Five Stages of Grief” — also known as the “Kübler-Ross Model” — is neither based on bereavement nor scientific research. Surprised? I was. So I decided it deserved another blog post.

I wasn’t just surprised, I was disappointed when I learned the facts about Kübler-Ross’s five stages. I was mostly disappointed because I liked the idea of having a map or path through this process, which I could follow and track my progress through a journey that by definition (I assumed) had a beginning, middle, and end. But I was also disappointed to learn that these five stages had become conventional wisdom in the field of psychology and mental health without any scientific research to back it up.

So who was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and where did these five stages come from? In the ’60s, she was one of the first psychologists to dedicate her career to working with terminally ill patients. She became a respected lecturer on the topic of how nurses and doctors could/should interact with their terminal patients. Because of the uniqueness of her work and her lectures, she was offered a book deal. It was then — after signing her book deal, and with a deadline looming — that she came up with the stage theory.

She wrote her book based on her work (not “research”) with terminally ill patients (not “bereaved people”). That first book, On Death and Dying, was published in 1969 and was interpreted as fact, and also turned her into a bit of a celebrity. Perhaps it was because of her sudden fame that she didn’t go out of her way to point out that the five stages were simply her “theory,” not proven through research. But in reality, as the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition says, “It is essential to note that … On Death & Dying is not a work of research. It is a popular book of description, observation and reflection based on a series of dialogs with dying people.”

The unfortunate thing for people like me is that the “conventional wisdom” of the five stages has made a negative impact on our experience of grief (as if it weren’t bad enough to be grieving in the first place). One of the most helpful and interesting books I’ve read in this past 6 months, The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, confirms what I have experienced: the embrace of the “Kübler-Ross model”…

“…has actually lengthened the expected duration of grief and made us more judgmental of those who stray from the designated path. We have been misled by the concept that grief is a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line, even while social science increasingly indicates that it’s more of a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift.”

Kübler-Ross, standing on the shoulders of Freud before her, set the foundation for today’s understanding of grief. Unfortunately for all of us, this foundation is fundamentally flawed. To quote The Truth about Grief again:

“a subject that is not supposed to be discussed… is the possibility that grief may be finite. ‘There is no timeline for grief,’ is how the advice books and web sites put it. Even the concept of recovery itself is seen as a misleading elusive goal. Though Kübler-Ross identified acceptance as her final stage, implying some kind of end point, she also said that you could never fully close the chapter on grief. “The reality is that you will grieve forever,” she concluded in On Grief and Grieving. “You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.” This undoubtedly may be true for many, but the grief movement has taken that statement to mean that no one should ever get over such a loss, although that rule seems to get more strictly applied to women than men.”

Did you catch that last part? That rule seems to get more strictly applied to women than men. For me personally, it’s the judgement of myself and others (real or imagined) that has been hardest part of my grieving process. After those first couple weeks of shock, my instincts told me to focus on moving forward — but I couldn’t stop the voice that would pop up in my head that questioned, “Wouldn’t a ‘good mother’ actually never move forward from losing her child? What does that say about me that I want to survive this? What will this say about me if I’m actually successful?”

Now, almost nine months later, I don’t ask myself those questions anymore. I know there are people who read this blog, or see me going about my day, and ask those questions in their head. (“How can she work? How can she be functional? How can she be smiling and laughing? If my child died, I wouldn’t be able to do any of those things. She must be in denial.”) These people worry that I’m not grieving correctly, and someday it’s going to finally “hit me.” The reality is, the only “denial” I experienced was Julian’s last day in the hospital. I was in absolute denial that he could die. Until he did. (You can read about that day on his CaringBridge site.)

I believe that the concern about denial and other judgement is primarily based assumptions about the stages of grief, and society’s expectation that no one should get over the loss of a child (especially a mother). But the truth is, both science and my natural instincts tell me that those people (including Kübler-Ross) are wrong.

We all need to re-think and re-discover what grieving really looks like. 


Posted by on December 1, 2011 in the second six months


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13 responses to “The myth of the “five stages of grief”

  1. Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective

    December 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I agree with you completely!!! Well said. The “five stages” (or however many people quote) have ended up being the accepted parameters concerning the grief process. People from every walk of life and every situation quote the Kübler-Ross model like it’s the answer to everything concerning grief. It places unreasonable expectations of others on the griever (or of the griever on himself or herself).

    I had written something recently on this:

  2. Leanne (Trebilcock) Avila

    December 2, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Beautifully written. I applaud you for taking these misconceptions head on, as well as giving yourself permission to take care of yourself and live life, to seek out what makes you and your family happy. And for those who cannot see how important that choice is for you, I hope that they begin to recognize how important your choice is for Oscar — to show him that while you may have suffered a terrible loss, it’s okay to be happy, to laugh, to live.

    Hugs to you.

  3. Deb Mathews

    December 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Rebecca and Leanne have responded perfectly and I can’t improve on their comments. You have done an incredible amount of research and thinking and you are getting very sound and useful results. Maybe you should write a book to discredit the “non-research” accepted “truths” about grief. Do continue to live, love, and laugh…..Julian will always be in your heart.

  4. Ashley

    December 4, 2011 at 2:14 am

    This is an incredible blog post. I want to have it tattooed on my body. So that I have it close by when I need it the most.

  5. Judy Rummler

    December 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Hi Emily,
    I sponke with your Dad again today at church and told him what a great service you are providing for those of us who have lost children. At first I was skeptical about your positive attitude and there are still many times when I hit deep valleys in my grief. I agree with you on this issue completely. There are no five stages and there is certainly no order to grief. You write so well! We lost our 43-year old son Steve in July to a drug overdose. He had suffered with chronic pain for 15 years and had been prescribed narcotic pain killers to which he became addicted. Our ministry is to make a difference for others with these same struggles. You can read about our foundation and Steve’s Story on our website at My heart aches for you … but I admire your courage. with admiration, Judy Rummler

  6. Darlene J Lund and Tom

    December 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Dear Emily…I am so happy to receive this blog. I mentioned to your Mom that I was a little scared for you that from the beginning your quest for organization of your grief was pretty harsh for you…that grief seems to pop up when unexpected and in no order. It took me years to stop looking for my Dad in his chair when I was home…and then to wonder if that as normal…of if it wasn’t normal, what happens when I stop looking for him…I’m proud of you for attacking the “rule” and to let your grief and sadness be yours alone…just as your life and love for Julian is yours alone. Blessings, Darlene

    • Emily Eaton

      December 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm

      Darlene, thank you for your ongoing support. It means a lot to me.

  7. Anonymous

    December 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you for this perspective which is, in my opinion, excellent – and will help me challenge my assumptions about grief. I’ve struggled with understanding it having seen so many different approaches and outcomes and maybe it’s simply meant to be personal and unique and doesn’t deserve judgement of any type. Hugs to you.

  8. Tracy Stein Sherbert

    December 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm


    I heard your story and was trying to figure out how to re-connect with a “sort of” friend from high school as she was losing her son. I decided just to follow your blog and to read your words and to pray for your family. Not knowing then how helpful the words would be.

    One of our best friends took his life in September of 2010. It was the hardest thing to see his family go through this tragic loss of a good man, and yet my girlfriend Michelle, has been at times awash in peace with it.

    She has her moments of sheer sadness yet she will look at me and she will ask “I want to love again, is that wrong?” “I am angry at him is that wrong?” I have thought of you countless times as I sit and cry with her and tell her “This journey has so many twists and turns but I do not think that anywhere we are going to see a sign that loving someone new is wrong, or that being mad at him for leaving is wrong.”

    But I am struck by how many people feel the need to judge, to criticize and to comment. By the people that only feel better if they tell HER how they feel. They aren’t even listening to her they just offer these pieces of advice, that trying THIS might work for her. Then there is almost this sigh of relief, like “I had to tell you you were doing it wrong, that you should try what worked for me, I have done that, my work here is done.”

    I am amazed at the gift you are creating here. I am only hopeful that anyone who stumbles across it will read it and realize, there is no right way to grieve- there is only grief. There is no right way to remember- there are only memories. There is no end to the pain-just more joy in the laughter that is left.

    Your words have helped me find words for Michelle and for myself. Thank you.

    • Emily Eaton

      December 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm

      Tracy, I’m sorry to hear about what your friend is going through, but I’m glad you found my blog helpful. Thank you for your note.

  9. Karen B. Kaplan

    April 22, 2018 at 9:42 am

    As a hospice chaplain, I like to boil down how grief works in a sentence or two. So the way I put it to a newly bereaved family member, is, “Grief is unique to each person, unique like a snowflake. There are no right or wrong rules about grieving, just as an emotion is not right or wrong.”

    • Emily Eaton

      April 22, 2018 at 11:26 am

      Yes, I agree. That’s a beautiful way to sum it up.


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