Revisiting and Recounting Grief’s 5 Stages

Grief is messy

Soon after Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” (1969) was published, her five stages of dying entered the popular consciousness. Those stages were also used to explain how people grieve.

We love lists. Comedian David Letterman did his Top Tens right up to his retirement show. If you follow sports, you love or hate rankings. What team is #1? Is your team in the Top 25? Yelp rates cardiac surgeons and pizza joints. The web has more lists than you can list: 10 steps for the perfect savings strategy, 9 ways to grow a new head of hair, 8 best cities for retirement . . .

And so, what are Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages? Yes, a quiz!

1 –

2 –

3 –

4 –

5 –

No Googling allowed! No stealing glances at your bookshelf. No asking a spouse, child, colleague, or passing stranger for help. And once you have what you think is the correct five, please put them in order. Don’t read the next paragraph until you’ve completed the tasks!

These are the five in alphabetical order:

  1. Acceptance
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Denial
  5. Depression

These are the five in Kubler-Ross’ original order:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The first list, the alphabetic order, is accurate. Guaranteed. The letter “b” does follow “a.” The second is deceitful. Instead of providing clarity, it promotes confusion. It is not meaningless, but it’s not honestly meaningful. Kubler-Ross wrote,

The five stages are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.

Maybe you knew or suspected the inadequacies of the “five stages.” But the lure of any list is strong. What we know is not necessarily how we feel. At our most vulnerable, we will restlessly search for logical solutions to our emotional, physical, or spiritual quagmires.

In my decades of ministry, I’ve heard some say they weren’t afraid of death. However, they feared the dying process. Dying means dependence, loss of control, and other uncertainties we spend our whole lives avoiding. The old trope “no pain, no gain” of the athlete curdles into a sick joke when dying becomes our last and fiercest competitor. The pain we dread from a cancer while approaching death does not have any “gain” as a goal.

In my decades of ministry, I’ve heard grieving people state: “I would give anything to take the suffering from him” or “I never knew how terrible life could be without her.” We grieve after the death, with acceptable feelings like loneliness and apathy and anxiety. We also grieve with unacceptable feelings. We resent that a loved one died and left us. We blame doctors that failed us. We hate the mean-spirited God that ignored us. Often we despise ourselves because we did too little or not enough, or arrived too late to help. We’ll even punish ourselves later for helping too much. Humans seem to find ways to feel bad about what was done or not done.

Forget Kubler-Ross’ puny five. There are many more stages and none of them are politely labeled. In no particular order:

  • Pissed-off
  • Isolated
  • Screwed (I almost used the “F” word, but lacked the courage)
  • Cursed
  • Shameful
  • Wounded
  • Frightened
  • Happy (yeah, what do you do when you’re actually glad your loved one died?)
  • Completely, hopelessly adrift
  • _____________

Please, add to the list with whatever feelings you have had when someone you love (or even someone you love and hate) is facing death. Or has died. Or you are now facing death.

I’ll try to stop upsetting or disappointing you. After all, lists can help. We like to know that we’ll graduate from college if we do A, then B, then C, and then we are D for done.

Look again at Kubler-Ross’ five. She was correct. Those feelings, those stages, were and are valid. But don’t look at them alphabetically as a way to make sense. Don’t look at them for a predictable order. You may only confront Anger and Depression. You may primarily experience Acceptance. You may never Bargain with God, or a doctor, or your mother-in-law, but you may grapple with—for months or years after your beloved’s death—bouts of Denial.

And those other feelings I mentioned—say, pissed-off or resentment—may be in the mix of your personal reactions or personal stages.

Your list (if we limit our words to Kubler-Ross’ wondrous insights and work) may be:

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Anger
  • Anger!
  • Acceptance

The person next to you may have a list like:

  • Acceptance
  • Denial
  • Acceptance

With a nod to Kubler-Ross, I put acceptance at the end of every list of those confronted by dying. But please criticize my hypocrisy . . . since I’ve vehemently claimed there’s no order. But the reality of mortality is everyone dies. Someone dying may never “accept” death because they believe a miracle will happen, or that lasting until the next week or month means participation in an experimental drug trial that will cure them. But we know nothing cures death. I think most understand and, in a sense, finally “accept” that inevitability.

And this is my truth about grief. It is love’s intimate companion. Here’s a hastily created list about the stages of love in life:

  1. I hate boys or girls or both. I’m just a kid!
  2. I like boys or girls or both. Ah, fickle adolescence!
  3. Puppy love. Going steady. A crush. (Or whatever phrase is popular now for teens.)
  4. How ‘bout some lust? You’re getting older!
  5. Love . . . ah, finding the “one.” You complete me, Dorothy Boyd rightly said to Jerry Maguire in the 1996 film.
  6. Significant others. Soul mates.
  7. Oops, there may be divorce. (And sometimes, as adults, the list begins again near the top.)
  8. For many, a lifetime relationship deepens as the years fly by.
  9. Death of the beloved.
  10. Grief. Always, inevitable, lousy, sneaky, messy* grief.

In true love, #10 anchors every list. When love matters like breath itself, grief is unavoidable.

Despise grief. Scheme to ignore grief. Stay busy and avoid grief until you drop from exhaustion. But grief still shadows every move and moment. Guaranteed.

But there’s one thing that barely, hopefully, possibly helps us survive the 3 or 30 “stages” of dying, death, and grief. Be with others that care about you, that understand you, and that treat you like the precious, wounded, beautiful, fragile person you are.

In the 2014 film “The Good Lie,” an African proverb was quoted:  “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Alone, we’ll never outrun grief. It is always a step quicker than you.

In grief, fast fails. Lists have limits. Instead, I urge you to seek time and healing and support and tenderness and understanding from others, and go far.

+++++

*Image at top – I found Beth Erlander’s scribbles about messy grief on (of course) the web. While I don’t know Ms. Erlander, she sure is right about grieving. I also located her webpage: here.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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