Are There Actual Stages of Grieving?
by Russell Friedman & John W. James of The Grief Recovery Institute
Many years ago Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book entitled On Death and Dying. The book identified five stages that a dying person goes through when they are told that they have a terminal illness. Those stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For many years, in the absence of any other helpful material, well-meaning people incorrectly assigned those same stages to the grief that follows a death or loss. Although a griever might experience some or all of those feeling stages, it is not a correct or helpful basis for dealing with the conflicting feelings caused by loss. We hesitate to name stages for grief. It is our experience that given ideas on how to respond, grievers will cater their feelings to the ideas presented to them. After all, a griever is often in a very suggestible condition; dazed, numb, walking in quicksand. It is often suggested to grievers that they are in denial. In all of our years of experience, working with tens of thousands of grievers, we have rarely met anyone in denial that a loss has occurred. They say “since my mom died, I have had a hard time.” There is no denial in that comment. There is a very clear acknowledgment that there has been a death. If we start with an incorrect premise, we are probably going to wind up very far away from the truth.
What about anger? Often when a death has occurred there is no anger at all. For example, my aged grandmother with whom I had a wonderful relationship got ill and died. Blessedly, it happened pretty quickly, so she did not suffer very much. I am pleased about that. Fortunately, I had just spent some time with her and we had reminisced and had told each other how much we cared about each other. I am very happy about that. There was a funeral ceremony that created a truly accurate memory picture of her, and many people came and talked about her. I loved that. At the funeral a helpful friend reminded me to say any last things to her and then say goodbye, and I did, and I’m glad. I notice from time to time that I am sad when I think of her or when I am reminded of her. And I notice, particularly around the holidays, that I miss her. And I am aware that I have this wonderful memory of my relationship with this incredible woman who was my grandma, and I miss her. And, I am not angry.
Although that is a true story about grandma, it could be a different story and create different feelings. If I had not been able to get to see her and talk to her before she died, I might have been angry at the circumstances that prevented that. If she and I had not gotten along so well, I might have been angry that she died before we had a chance to repair any damage. If those things were true, I would definitely need to include the sense of anger that would attend the communication of any unfinished emotional business, so I could say goodbye.
Unresolved grief is almost always about undelivered communications of an emotional nature. There are a whole host of feelings that may be attached to those unsaid things. Happiness, sadness, love, fear, anger, relief, compassion, are just some of the feelings that a griever might experience. We do not need to categorize, analyze, or explain those feelings. We do need to learn how to communicate them and then say goodbye to the relationship that has ended.
It is most important to understand that there are no absolutes. There are no definitive stages or time zones for grieving. It is usually helpful to attach feeling value to the undelivered communications that keep you incomplete. Attaching feelings does not have to be histrionic or dramatic, it does not even require tears. It merely needs to be heartfelt, sincere and honest.
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. Grief is emotional, not intellectual. Rather than defining stages of grief which could easily confuse a griever, we prefer to help each griever find their own truthful expression of the thoughts and feelings that may be keeping them from participating in their own lives. We all bring different and varying beliefs to the losses that occur in our lives, therefore we will each perceive and feel differently about each loss.
QUESTION: Is there some confusion between anger and fear as they relate to the Grief Recovery”” process?
ANSWER: A primary feeling response to loss is fear. “How will I get along without him/her?” Anger is one of the most common ways we express our fear. Our society taught us to be afraid of our sad feelings, it also taught us to be afraid of being afraid. We are willing to say “I am angry,” but we say “it was scary.” It is possible to create an illusion of completion by focusing on the expression of anger. Usually anger is not the only undelivered feeling relating to unresolved grief.
© 2002 Russell P. Friedman, John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.