The stages of grief were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago, as she listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses. Since the publication of her book On Death and Dying, the "stages of grief," as they are known, have become the gauge by which all grief is measured. What began as a way to understand the emotions of the dying became a way to strategize grief: The griever is expected to move through a series of clearly delineated stages, eventually arriving at "acceptance," at which time their "grief work" is complete.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
I bet you know what the stages are, even if you don't think of yourself as much of a psychology-type person. The stages are taught in introductory college courses, and were taught back when I was in hospice training. The stages are taught in grief and loss workshops. They come up in pop psychology and in clinical, scientific studies. The stages of grief are everywhere.
This means that many people, even professional psychologists, believe there is a right way and a wrong way to grieve, that there is an orderly and predictable pattern that everyone will go through, and if you don't progress correctly, you are failing at grief. You must move through these stages completely, or you will never heal.
This is a lie.
Death and its aftermath is such a painful and disorienting time. I understand why people -- both the griever and those witnessing grief -- want some kind of road map, a clearly delineated set of steps or stages that will guarantee a successful end to the pain of grief. The truth is, grief is as individual as love: every life, every path, is unique. There is no predictable pattern, and no linear progression. Despite what many "experts" say, there are no stages of grief.
In her later years, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that she regretted writing the stages the way that she did, that people mistook them as being both linear and universal. Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, Ms. Ross identified five common experiences, not five required experiences. Her stages, whether applied to the dying or those left living, were meant to normalize and validate what someone might experience in the swirl of insanity that is loss and death and grief.
The stages of grief were not meant to tell you what you feel, what you should feel, and when exactly you should feel it. They were not meant to dictate whether you are doing your grief "correctly" or not. They were meant to normalize a deeply not-normal time. They were meant to give comfort. Ms. Ross' work was meant as a kindness, not a cage.
No matter how much the woman herself regretted the misuse of her stages, they are firmly embedded in our cultural ideas of the right and wrong ways to grieve. The stages are used as a corrective reproach, the process of grief turned into a race: Even the stages themselves are not meant to be lingered in. If someone is identified as being in a stage (especially a messy one, like anger), they need to "get through it" as quickly as possible so they can move on to the end goal of acceptance. Conversely, whatever stage someone is in, they must stay there until they are done, otherwise their grief work will suffer.
For your sake, and the sake of those around you, you must do your grieving fast, do it correctly, and be done.
Except that this isn't how grief goes.
Grief is the natural response when someone you love is torn from your life. It is a natural process: a process of the heart being smashed and broken open, of reality shifting and hurling in place. It cares nothing for order or stages.
The truth is, you can't force an order on pain. You can't make it tidy or predictable. The stages of grief are a net thrown over a fogbank -- they help neither to define nor contain.
To do grief "well" depends solely on individual experience. It means listening to your own reality. It means acknowledging pain and love and loss. It means allowing the truth of these things the space to exist without any artificial tethers or stages or requirements.
There is no set pattern, not for everyone and not even within each person. Each grief is unique, as each love is unique. There are no stages capable of containing all the experiences of love and pain. There are no stages of grief.
If we take away this bedrock, what remains? What do we do without those landmarks?
Here are some things to remember:
• There is no finish line. This is not a race. Grief has its own lifespan, unique to you.
• There is no time when pain and grief are completed; you grieve because you love and love is part of you. Love changes, but does not end.
• What will happen, what can happen, as you allow your grief, is that you will move differently with pain. It shifts and changes: sometimes heavy, sometimes light.
• Anger will happen. So will fear, peace, joy, guilt, confusion, and a range of other things. You will flash back and forth through many feelings, often several of them at once.
• Sometimes you will be tired of grief. You will turn away. And you'll turn back. And you'll turn away. Grief has a rhythm of its own.
• Grief can be absolutely crazy-making. This does not mean you are crazy.
• There is no way to do grief "wrong." It may be painful, but it is never wrong.
Remember that there is no "closure." Grief is part of love, and love evolves. Even acceptance is not final: It continuously shifts and changes.
The truth is, you will seize up in the face of pain and soften into it, again and again, both things in rapid succession, and both things with silence in between. You'll find ways to live inside your grief, and in doing so, it will find its own right place.
Your love, and your grief, are bigger than any stage could ever be. The only way to contain it is to let it be free.
As Ms. Ross said in the last days of her life, "I am more than these five stages. And so are you."