The Myth of the 5 Stages of Grief

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As a mental-health counselor and a sixty-something-year-old human being, I have found that you cannot fit grief into a neat list of stages on some linear continuum.  The so-called five stages of grief actually are a myth. Grief doesn’t come in stages, but in cycles. These cycles may come in waves like a gently rolling incoming tide of memories, or like a consuming tsunami of pain that can’t be stopped. And there are way more than five stages and phases of grief. There are infinite ways grief comes and goes.

No one’s pain can fit neatly into a check list. Are you supposed to check in with that checklist so you can figure out where you are and how long you have until you gain “closure”?  The five stages are purported to be:

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance

See how it looks in a line instead of a list. Not everyone will feel all these things and certainly not in some sort of succession. Grief is not orderly. It is usually quite messy. Depending on the relationship with the person, the grief responses may last a lifetime. Let’s look at the stages in a new perspective.

Denial:

This is shock, plain and simple. It is an assault to the body, mind and spirit and can be triggered many years later by an aroma, a location or endless reminders of the loss of a loved one. It is OK not to be OK when you lose someone.

Anger:

See this as a phase of mourning. It is lonely. People can feel abandoned by death. It is anger at death itself. Aren’t you angry about death?  I am! It is a thief that steals our joy and detours lives. I think this is why the Bible refers to death as the “last enemy to be defeated” (1Cor: 15:26).  The scripture says that on Good Friday, Jesus ascended to get the keys to death, hell and the grave. (Rev 1:18) Even if you don’t believe in this, see that it is good.  Death is the number one fear of man. We are all angry about death; that is not a stage, but an ongoing part of life.

Bargaining:

This is when people make promises to do anything to make the pain go away. That is normal and the effects of death are so costly it may be a bit disrespectful to call it a bargain. It is just pain trying to find a way out.

Depression:

Can’t people just be sad? Our society does not allow much time for sadness. Thankfully, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) removed the two-month time frame for a grief response.  They realized they were giving a pathological diagnosis to people who are very sad after a loss. They finally saw it was OK not to be OK too. Not many people recover in eight weeks. There are cultures where you have to wear black for the rest of your life if your spouse dies. Telling people from these cultures or who have suffered losses in heinous ways such as murder seems to not fit into the mold of depression. They are traumatized and need trauma counseling, not a list of appropriate grief responses.

Acceptance:

Acceptance can be overwhelming, too. There are some deaths, such as murder or the loss of a child that can’t be accepted. They can only be held in the memory with reverence. I ask clients to remember good things about the person they lost. This brings openness to seeing the loss in perspective. It is the opposite of closure. It is seeing how precious a life was and cherishing it in a way that is personal and positive, not accepting the loss. Accepting that you can’t bring them back and that we all have mortality is very different than telling someone to accept it. It moves past acceptance into an ascension toward a release of the stronghold of grief into the compassion for yourself and others that remain here for our lifetimes.

I know the 5 Stages list was meant as a guideline to help those with grief see some light at the end of the tunnel. However, circumstances make some tunnels for some people much longer than others. Go at your own pace and when you can’t, go get help.

Mary Joye

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For the past ten years I have been a private practice Licensed Mental Health Counselor. I'm a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and a Florida Supreme Court Family Mediator. Grief resilience and trauma resolution is a large part of my practice. I was raised on the beach in Florida. My father was a psychiatrist and I worked in his office in my youth. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Instead, I chose to become a theatrical design major instead and graduated from the University of Florida in 1979. My first job out of college, KISS employed me as a make-up and wardrobe assistant for three years. It was quite an experience and a good background to study communications. Later in Nashville, I began songwriting, acting and performing professionally and am a member of BMI, ASCAP and a former member of the Country Music Association, Screen Actors Guild and The American Federation of Musicians. That career grew into a 20-year music ministry. I also wrote ad copy for XM radio, Texaco, The Filmhouse and currently write for two publications in Winter Haven, Florida, where I returned to take care of my ill and now deceased parents. I earned an MA in Counseling from Trevecca Nazarene University in 2000. (Photo by Daniel DeCastro)

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