Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is my hero. But her five stages of grief are not. Kubler-Ross was a pioneer in the death and dying movement – bringing understanding, compassion and a sense of community to the dying and their families. She also gave us a simple explanation of the grieving process we could understand and remember. The only problem is that grief researchers have provided a pile of scientific evidence that indicates grief has no clear universal course.
Perhaps if Kubler-Ross were still alive, she might be working to correct the cultural myths about grief and grieving that her model helped to foster. In Kubler-Ross’ own words from her final book, On Grief and Grieving, the Five Stages of Grief she outlined (Denial-Anger-Depression-Bargaining-Acceptance): “…have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss. There is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”
Kubler-Ross’ model of grief doesn’t stand alone in its inability to tuck a messy human experience into “neat packages.” Any grief standard that attempts to define “normal” grieving with a few relatable emotions, mental states, tasks, or behaviors (that a griever may or may not experience) denies a wide range of possibilities and casts a shadow on many perfectly useful and sincere grieving responses that become suspect of being abnormal, immature, self-absorbed, or even pathological.
A heart-rending and brilliant account of grief is Ann Hood’s book Comfort. The book takes us down the trail of grief upon which Hood was forced to embark after the death of her five-year-old daughter, Grace, in 2002. After receiving a litany of encouragement to seek the advice of other grievers, including those whose children died, Hood’s prose drives into the core of her grief when she writes: “But none of them lost Grace. They do not know what it is to lose Grace.”
To face grief is to face the knowledge that your grief is yours and yours alone. No one experienced your grief before you, and no one – not even you – will experience your grief the same way again. We humans are multi-dimensional creatures. As we grieve, we process countless nuanced emotions, mental states, physical sensations, behaviors, and spiritual perceptions. By default, you are the foremost expert on your grief. But, due to the complexities of your being, there will be times even you have no idea what your grief is asking of you or how to satisfy its needs. As a grief-stricken Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
If we humans are to untangle the great psychological mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by pretending that grief is a predictable and categorically simple process, we must first admit our ignorance. We must clear the table of all the answers and look instead to the questions that rise up in us as we stand smack dab in the middle of our unique grief experiences. Moreover, we each have to be willing to accept grief as an aspect of our being. Your grief doesn’t have a life of its own; it can’t reside apart from you. If you regard grief as an enemy to be eradicated, you do battle with your own soul.
Do this. Pretend you’re observing, sensing, feeling, thinking, being in your grief as if for the first time. Lay down the burdens of expectation you carry, forget the knowledge you’ve acquired, suspend your beliefs and judgments about your grief. Now, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and simply be with this grief that is you – because it is you or, at least, a part of you.
Excerpt (revised) from Doing Grief in Real Life: A Soulful Guide to Navigate Loss, Death & Change ©2022 by Shea Darian