If you've ever been hit by grief, at some point, you’ve probably heard someone talk about the five stages of grief.
You know—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
When you look at those words, it’s easy to think that grief follows a logical process that you can move through easily and quickly. The reality, of course, is that grief doesn’t work that way all.
In fact, grief can be far from logical.
And it's certainly never easy. Quite to the contrary—it can be the most emotional and gut-wrenching thing that you ever experience.
Essentially, what we’ve been told about the five stages of grief is actually quite inaccurate.
Why? And what are the facts?
The list of possible reactions to grief is endless and unique to every individual.
The 5 stages were described by Elisabeth Kübler-Rossover 50 years ago when she was researching the emotional reactions of terminally ill patients….not in people who were grieving a loss. Over the decades, this has become the blueprint many feel they are expected to follow in their grief process.
This only adds to confusion and other uncomfortable emotions that may in fact get in the way of healing.
For instance, creating “shoulds”: “I should have accepted the loss of my mother by now.” “I felt I accepted the loss of my husband, I shouldn’t be angry now.” “I was never angry that cancer took my sister from me. Is there something wrong with me?”
Whatever you are feeling in your grief journey is normal. And it’s ok.
It’s Possible to Feel No Emotions at All
Yes, it's possible that you may not feel any emotions at all when experiencing loss. Why?
Because, especially in Western society, we have the habit of walling off our emotions to anybody—including ourselves. Not that this is necessarily a good thing, it’s just very common and means that you may not even experience any stage of grief.
The problem is, when you shut everything down and become numb to your grief, you deny yourself the opportunity to process those emotions. By not doing that you become stuck, so to speak, which makes it harder to move on.
Embracing vs. Accepting Loss
Too often, we feel that we have to “accept” loss. But, why not embrace it?
Is that really possible? Sure, of course, it’s possible to experience happiness even when in grief.
For example, when celebrating a life, you smile and laugh as you recall fond memories of your deceased friend or loved one. Or, after the end of a relationship, you still find it possible to look back with love and care for what you both once had.
Remember, it's a natural part of life that things end. By acknowledging this and drawing it close, you don’t have to merely settle for acceptance. Rather, you can celebrate that end as just one of many vital human experiences.
During the grieving journey it’s not an either/or of joy/grief. It’s more of a parallel process where you can experience the painful emotions of grief, as well as delight in joyous moments.
The Unpredictable Speed of Grief
As noted at the outset, another misleading concept connected to the five stages of grief is that it implies that grief can be a simple, straightforward, and quick process. This is, of course, a big oversimplification.
The reality is that grief can take weeks, months, even years. And, in the process, it can take you on all these unexpected twists and turns.
In short, grief is usually more complicated than you realize. This is especially true if you don’t have the emotional tools to cope.
It is not a process that happens in a straight line. You may feel like you are going backward at times. That’s ok, and perfectly normal. It ebbs and flows, and there will brighter days ahead.
If you are struggling through your own grief process, consider asking a therapist for help. Remember, it’s always OK to ask for help.
Grief is an individualized process. It does not have to abide by a strict formula. Rather, how you grieve is as diverse as every human being on the planet.