The Great Lie About Grief

Fifteen years ago I made a vow
by Peter Mangola~
Most everyone has heard of the stages of grief. They are everywhere in our society. This model dictates that in order to grieve properly, a person who has recently lost a loved one will go through the following stages in a neat order:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
We all “know” as a society that the stages of grief are inviolate and we all proceed through them (at varying paces certainly), but we all proceed through them in order, whether we intend to or not.
Sometimes people flash through the first few and get stuck for years on the fourth; “NOOO! How could God have let this happen?!? God, please, I’ll give anything if you just…” and then months of sullen silence.

Sometimes, people get stuck bargaining, and spend weeks on their knees in church, praying for the return of their loved one. ‘Healthy’ grief is grief that moves rapidly through the stages before settling on acceptance and allowing the bereaved to move forward.

Except…not really
There is a problem with the stages of grief model, however. The stages are not only unreal, but they tend to actively hurt the people who are grieving. The truth is there is no set pattern to human grief. And more importantly, there is no wrong way to grieve.

The stages of grief were first laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. But these were not intended to be the stages of grief as a generic emotional event. They were actually the stages of the acceptance of one’s own impending death. That is a far cry from being a description of all grief. But this is only the beginning of the problems with the concept.

From an interview with Kübler-Ross:
“It took three weeks of sitting at my desk late at night…before I figured out the book. Then I saw very clearly how all of my dying patients, in fact everyone who suffers a loss, went through similar stages. They started off with shock and denial, rage and anger, then grief and pain. Later they bargained with God. They got depressed, asking ‘Why me?’ And finally they withdrew into themselves for a bit, separating themselves from others while hopefully reaching a stage of peace and acceptance.”

Three weeks of writer’s block is where the stages of grief actually came from. It turns out that even Kübler-Ross’ subsequent book On Grief and Grieving brings up the five stages, but couples them with the caveat that they do not always happen in the same order (which begs the question ‘why call them stages at all?’)

The Damage Caused

The problem with the notion of the ‘stages’ of grief is twofold. First, it implies that there is a ‘wrong way’ to grieve. For example, if you were never angry about your loved one’s death, you are somehow ‘holding back’ or ‘keeping in’ something that needs to come out.

Second, it creates an implicit schedule; if you are not grieving for long enough along this prescribed route, you are not actually ‘doing right’ by the deceased. As though being in pain is somehow honoring your loved one. Wouldn’t they rather see you honoring them by celebrating their accomplishments and remembering them affectionately?
In 2008, psychologist Dale Lund of the California State University surveyed nearly 300 recently-bereaved senior citizens, and found that in 75% of respondents, the level of laughter and humor in their daily lives was significantly higher than anticipated.

However, by emphasizing the negative emotions that grief causes in our daily lives, the Kübler-Ross stages have taught us that we are not allowed to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. Instead, we are supposed to go through ‘healthy’ periods of anger and depression. This has, in turn, caused our society to view people who are capable of celebrating as somehow bad or wrong.

This idea can be devastating, because it tends to punish the people who are doing what is best for their own well-being, while rewarding the people who are drawing out their suffering.

The simple fact is that there is no wrong way to grieve, and if you decide you want to spend your time being grateful for the relationship you had, you are going to be a much more valuable person to those you have left. The idea that it is mandatory for someone to deliberately undermine their quality of life by being angry, depressed, and aloof is not just silly, it can be downright destructive.

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About Peter Mangiola

Peter Mangiola is a senior care advocate with several decades of experience in the industry. Peter helps senior citizens by leveraging his vast knowledge of the healthcare industry and his expertise in identifying effective, affordable healthcare solutions. Peter has been a consultant, educator and regular speaker for many groups and organizations over the years covering a wide variety of topics; including Geriatric Care Management, Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Senior Care Health Service & Advocacy

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