In her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist, introduced us to what we now know as five stages of grief. When she originally penned these stages they were called the five stages of death.
At the time, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was working with terminally ill patients and she cited these five emotions as what were common stages for the terminally ill as they contemplated their own mortality.
It was years later that she realized these same five stages were common to all loss encounters, including the process in which we grieve the death of a loved-one. The five stages of grief, as set forth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross have become the standard of understanding the process of grieving.
These five stages of grief are:
These five stages of grief remain as popular and incomparable to any other tool or guide put forth in the study of human grieving. It is simply the standard that has never been improved upon in its educational purpose.
The order of these stages is a typical flow in the progression of grieving. It doesn’t mean that a person going through grief is going to recognize their transition from one stage to another. It is possible and even likely that a person who is grieving may not find themselves involved much with a few of these stages.
For instance, a griever may not be prone to anger and may not really find themselves being angry. A griever may not find themselves bargaining with God to bring back their loved-one either. In my own witness to others in the grieving stages, I can say that the two primary stages I have seen are denial and acceptance.
First, the shock of a death or the stark realization of its permanence often causes the desire to deny that it happened. This is why we sometime hear people say, It seems like a dream that I keep hoping I’ll wake up from.
Second, the emotion of anger may overcome us in grieving, and that may look like, Why did they have to drive that route? say, if the death was in an auto accident. If one is accustomed to blaming others, this stage of anger may be directed toward the physician or the hospital who tried to save their loved-one, as in I knew they should have taken him to the other hospital.
Third, the bargaining emotion is a spiritual one that has the grieving person asking God to bring them back or take their life instead. Some type of bargaining that if God reverses this they will do such and such in return.
Fourth, depression usually comes when one realizes there is nothing that can be done to bring their loved-one back and the grief has become a blue numbness. This is a normal sense of sadness, but if it drags on for weeks or months the griever may need therapeutic intervention.
Five, finally accepting the loss or the death is when the grieving can begin to move forward with their life in a healthy way. It doesn’t mean that the deceased is forgotten or that the grieving is over, it means that the grieving and the memory of the deceased can now become part of one’s life going forward.
Grief becomes part of our lives as a new normal. There really is no getting over it or leaving it behind. As time goes on we learn to incorporate it into our day to day lives and eventually the tears lessen or at least become more controllable.
We cannot put a time frame on how long grief should last, nor should we criticize someone for grieving in intensities that we may think are too much or too far from the time of death. Grief is a feeling, and like any other feeling, it’s personal and individual. Most people going through the stages of grief will sense if they’re stuck in a long-lasting debilitating pattern and in need of counseling help or a support group.
One final note, I’ve been writing from the perspective of grieving the death of a loved-one and specifically from the vantage point of a hospital chaplain. However, grief is also a reaction to other losses in our life, too. Grief may come to us as the result of a marriage loss through divorce, a loss of employment, or any number of losses like a move to a new state and an adult child leaving the home front.
In my next post, I am going to write about death notifications and children.
In the meantime, let’s not forget the Lord is not unaware of those that grieve because He has promised in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”