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The "Stages" of Grief

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance ("DABDA")

Has anyone ever told you that grief should follow these predictable and orderly stages?

If yes, I'm pretty sure this post is going to shake a few things up for you!

In the paraphrased words of Dr. Maya Angelou, "...when you know better, do better."

Let's take a couple of minutes to challenge one of the biggest misconceptions about grief, so we can better help ourselves and our friends through experiences of loss.

I have a feeling you may have learned that grief should follow these five stages by a well-intentioned mental health professional, religious leader or pastor, medical doctor, or maybe even a loving parent or friend.

I'm also not sure we can blame them for their misguided advice when most of us (including trained practitioners) receive very little (if any) education on loss during our lifetimes. And, when a textbook does cover information related to death or grief, it usually includes only one or two paragraphs guessed it..."DABDA."

Death is often referred to as "the great equalizer"- the one thing ALL of us (including our clients and friends) will universally experience. Ironically, it's also the one thing about which we are rarely taught. Most of us are uncomfortable discussing the subject and even more ill-equipped to help ourselves and others when it happens. So, we do the best we can with the limited information we have been provided.

The Stages of Death and Dying (not Grief...)

"The Stages of Death and Dying" ("DABDA") were developed in the late 1960s by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. They emerged as themes from her pioneering, qualitative interviews with hospital patients who were dying of a terminal illness. The "stages" described the emotions many of her patients were experiencing during a time in history when medical providers often ignored the needs of the dying.

Dr. Kübler-Ross' work was groundbreaking, and it significantly changed the way our healthcare system cares for the ill and dying (as well as their families). It built the foundation for what we now call "anticipatory" or "preparatory" grief counseling. Her research was (and is still) essential to the field. She paved the way for the work I, and so many others, do to support the dying, bereaved, and their families.

Unfortunately, Dr. Kübler-Ross' research is often oversimplified and used out of context today. As a result, we tend to overprescribe her stages of death and dying to people following a loss.

This isn't surprising because our culture loves a "quick fix," especially to something that involves discomfort or unpleasant emotions. And, a stage model to our grief gives us precisely what we seek. Somewhere, deep within, we yearn for a straightforward model that will simply (and quickly) help us resolve our feelings of sadness and distress.

We often believe that if we progress "through the stages," in perfect order and as fast as we can, we will be "over" our grief as soon as possible. I've even heard people say "well, I think I'm in the bargaining stage now...only two more stages and I should be over this."

If only the human heart worked this way…

From Fighting to Feeling

My dear readers, the heart does not adhere to quick fixes or fast approaches. Grief isn't something to be conquered. Rather, we must learn to co-exist and cope with its emotional, spiritual, and physical reactions.

Instead of fighting...we must feel.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that isn't very appreciative (or tolerant) of emotional expression making the vulnerability required by the mourning process even more difficult.

And, when our staged model doesn't play out exactly as we planned, we often assume something is innately wrong with us- that we aren't "doing" grief the "right" way.

Today, most experts agree that while we may experience some of the same emotions described in the Stages of Death and Dying (i.e., denial, anger, or depression), the grief process does not follow a predictable or orderly sequence. Humans experience MANY complex emotions following a loss...not just the five represented in DABDA. And, it would be rare for our grief to fit neatly into these (or any other) boxes.

Remember…grief is borne out of great love.

Just as love is complicated and dynamic, so is our grief.

My dear readers, please accept this post as permission to lay aside your previous assumptions about the "stages" of grief, and allow yourself to mourn outside of the box…even if just a little...

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