One of the most widely held assumptions about the grieving process is that people proceed through a series of stages as they attempt to come to terms with their loss. . . . [Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross] proposed that people go through five stages as they attempt to cope with their own impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model captured the imagination of professionals working in the field of bereavement, who sought to apply it to the process of grieving.
This is how Dr. Camille Wortman begins an examination of “the seductiveness of stages” to the grieving process. She asks if there is any scientific evidence for the widespread use of the stages of grieving model. Her answer is as straight forward as it is complex.
The consensus of scholars is that there is not. As Robert Neimeyer has indicated, research has failed to identify a universal or normative pattern of grieving. It turns out there is considerable variability in the kinds of emotions we experience after a loss – and the order in which we experience them. Stage models do not help us to understand why some people are devastated by a loss, while others emerge unscathed, or even strengthened.
In my experience as a pastor I can add my own voice to the assessment Dr. Wortman makes from various research projects including her own. Grieving is complex, non-linear, sometimes chaotic, sometimes placid, and quite unique. Those who grieve often experience pain, sadness, distraction, lethargy, lack of joy in usually joyful events or activities, and so much more. Those who grieve may experience pain profoundly or minimally. Pain may be experienced intensely in the event of the death or not. The intensity of pain may subside over time or grow stronger. Pain may be experienced at the “first anniversary of” (a birthday, a wedding, a holiday and so on) or not. I reiterate, grieving is as unique as the individual experiencing loss.
Dr. Wortman suggests that the use of a stage model of grieving has the potential to cast the bereaved in the role of sick or dysfunctional if the stages are not followed in order or if they are not entered into at all. If the bereaved, for example, does not experience anger (one of the stages) to the extent the family or therapist or pastor thinks appropriate the temptation is to see this person as in still in denial, dysfunctional, or ill. Likewise, Wortman argues that the grieving person may come to see herself as ill, not fully human, lacking in some way, if one of the stages (anger, for example) is absent or weak. She goes on to observe and comment on what I find to be true:
The Center for the Advancement of Health concluded that grief is not divisible into distinct stages. The Institute of Medicine recommended against using the term “stages” because it implies a more orderly progression through the grief process than typically occurs. They emphasize that grieving people should be helped to understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
To understand that there is no “right or wrong way to grieve” can be both comforting and discomforting. It is comforting to know that there is no rule book which constricts one’s expression of grief. It can be comforting to know that grieving is “messy” rather than orderly–so relax in the chaos of the moment, it will not last forever.
At the same time it can be discomforting to know there is no right or wrong way to grieve. If there is no road map, no trail to follow, if messy is in fact the “order of the day” the grieving person can become overwhelmed and down and withdraw or become disengaged emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Sensitivity to each individual and each–unique–situation of loss and its aftermath is called for by those who would walk with a grieving person.
Patience, self-knowledge, and self-acceptance on the part of the bereaved is to be encouraged and facilitated. To walk with one who is grieving is both soul-satisfying and physically and emotionally demanding. Grieving is part of life and until you are the bereaved there is no knowing how much will be asked of you or how you will walk in the reality of your loss.
As a pastor I can say that the presence of a faith community has helped both the bereaved and those who walk with the bereaved to find their way through the pain of loss. There are the common texts from scripture to be shared in the midst of loss and change. There is the commitment to stand by each other in pain and loss as a shared value. In our Christian faith there is the shared belief that in death “life is changed, not ended.” There is even the comfort of an on-going relationship between the living and the dead in the “communion of saints.”
Dr. Wortman does not pretend to have the final answer, nor do I, about the usefulness of the stage model in assisting the grieving. She ends with several questions and an invitation to comment on her essay.
What is your opinion of stage models? Have the stage models helped you to cope with a loss? What did you find helpful? Or did these models interfere with your grieving process or make things harder for you? I hope you will share your thoughts with me.
Like Dr. Wortman, I invite your comments about your experience of grieving.
For further reading and reflection
- Coping with the death of a loved one: The seductiveness of stages — the complete essay of Camille Wortman, Ph.D.
- Communicating with the deceased — another essay by Camille Wortman, Ph.D., in which she uses research to explore the question of an ongoing connection with those who have died. In a way she affirms what Episcopalians hold to be true that we are all connected in Christ in the communion of saints. This connection is experienced in a variety of ways as Dr. Wortman explains in this essay.
- Grieving a loss — an excellent online resource to support those who are grieving and those who walk with one who is grieving. This page is part of the website Caring Connections maintained by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and funded in part by a grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.