Debunking the Stages of Grief: Why the Five Stages of Grief Don't Exist

Debunking the Stages of Grief: Why the Five Stages of Grief Don't Exist
Grief is a complex creature and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to manage it. Grief is a natural and universal process. Learn more about grief here.
3 minute read

Anita Chauhan & Ruth Frolic

This guest post is brought to you by Ruth Frolic. Ruth Frolic is a registered psychotherapist practicing in Toronto, focusing her private practice on grief and bereavement. She holds a masters in education in counselling psychology as well as a masters in English literature.

Have you been told that there is a right way to grieve? That all you need to do is pass through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and you will be done? Has it ever made you think that you must be doing grief wrong? It can be so frustrating when we hear this and it doesn’t match our own experiences in grief.

In truth, the experience of grief is completely individual, it is different according to each person, and can change over time. Grieving people may experience all the states in the 5 stages of grief but they rarely occur in such an order and they don’t progress through in a linear fashion.

Many people I have worked with have described their grief journey as ‘a mess’ or ‘confusing’ or ‘nothing like what I expected’. They often say that the pressure to ‘grieve the right way’ has caused them to suffer more in a way, thinking that they are doing grief wrong.

In reality everyone’s grief journey depends on their own individual self, the family they live with or grew up in, their overall coping styles, their social location, their personality and many other factors. Some theorists follow a task-based model, such as William Worden’s 4 tasks of mourning: to accept the reality of the loss, to work through the pain of grief, to adjust to an environment where the deceased is missing, and to find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. This model presents these tasks as points that all grieving people engage with but not necessarily in a linear fashion.

Stroebe and Schut look at grieving in a different way. Instead of the notion that one must do ‘grief work’ wherein they face their pain head on in an intentional way, this Dual Process model of grieving says that people move between a loss oriented and a restoration oriented process. In the former the person is focusing on coping with bereavement, the loss they have experienced and works to accept and recognize the impact of it. In the latter the person has accepted the loss and rebuilds their relationship with the deceased person by meaning making.

There are many theories about grief. Many ways that people have tried to understand and make sense of this most universal and human experience. Some of these models might help you to understand your own grief, but just as likely you might find that they fall short. This is because your experience of grief is an individual experience.

Some of the best advice I’ve been given about grief has come from the people that I work with. They have said:

  • My journey was nothing like I thought it was going to be
  • A lot of the time I felt alone in it, but it helped a lot to be with people who understand what it feels like to lose someone
  • I just had to hold on and try and get through with as much help and support as I could.

What the people that I have worked with have almost universally have said about their grief journey was to:

  • Take it slow
  • Not expect too much of yourself
  • Find at least one person to talk to who knows what it’s like
  • Have patience with yourself
  • Trust yourself

Grief is a complex creature and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to manage or get through it. Grief is a natural and universal process. Far from being negative, grieving is the way we heal. It takes time and effort. We love, and so we grieve. The grieving process, when done in a healthy way, takes courage and internal strength, and remember to be patient with yourself.