We are universally connected in our grief and suffering regarding the end of life. There’s no escaping the fact that 56.5 million people die each year — 2.5 million in the USA alone — that’s 6,500 individuals departing daily. Yet, as founders of The Grief Recovery Institute, John James and Russell Friedman note, “We are ill-prepared to deal with death. We receive more education about simple first aid than we do about loss, death, divorce and emotional loss.” And sometimes the education we do receive is rather confusing.
Typically, when it comes to understanding this painful aspect of the human experience, we are taught about or reference is made to The 5 Stages of Grief, a model born from the work of Swiss-born psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, that was presented in her book “On Death and Dying.” The premise for this model came from Kübler’s research in the 60’s interviewing patients at College of Chicago Billings Hospital who tragically had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She recorded their emotional reactions to the news, finding a common thread in how they responded — initially with denial, then anger, bargaining (often with God), depression and eventually acceptance as they began to grieve the loss of their own life and future.
Little research had been conducted into grief at the time and so Kübler’s study quickly became known as The Five Stages of Grief and was adopted by psychologists, counselors, nurses, the clergy and caregivers as a tool for helping people with grieving. The problem is that typically these people were not grieving the loss of their own life but of someone they loved.
The ground-breaking work of Dr. Kübler-Ross raised considerable awareness on a subject where previously there was none. Yet, the application of this model from terminally ill patients to the bereaved has caused an awful lot of confusion, and planted the seeds for the ‘just move on’ mentality surrounding modern grieving.
Unfortunately, Kübler’s Five Stages of Grief fails to account for the experience of living with loss. Particularly when that loss is sudden and unexpected, as is the case for accidental death, suicide, murder or a natural disaster – many never find acceptance in this instance as their sense of faith in God and the world is completely shattered. Nor does it account for those who experience multiple losses, the early loss of a parent, or the loss of a baby or child, the slow and excruciating demise of someone lost to disease, or the loss of a loved one followed by another trauma in close succession creating a “coupling effect” that often results in serious depression.
Many who have endured these losses suffer from what is known as complicated grief that is all-encompassing and at times life-threatening. For these people a glib comment such as “you’ll move into the acceptance stage soon” from an uninformed party in reference to The Five Stages of Grief can be extremely wounding and insensitive. Many will never ‘get over it’ and, it turns out, nor should they try.
In the early 90’s, a new concept surrounding grief emerged, challenging the previously upheld belief that “moving on” and “accepting” was essential. Extensive research conducted by twenty-two authors (among the most respected in their fields) concluded that the popular “must move on” approach wasn’t just breaking ties, but also hearts and lives—something that bereaved families had known for years.
These findings, presented in the book “Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief,” showed that despite cultural and professional objections, surviving family members frequently sought to maintain links or continuing bonds with their departed. Far from being in denial or some kind of pathological state — as was the common understanding — the nurturing of an ongoing connection provided a source of great comfort and solace, enabling the bereaved to find a healthy and natural resolution to their grief.
After this concept was introduced to the bereavement care and psychological community, there was recognition that a more comprehensive model other than The Five Stages of Grief is still very much needed. As I’m sure many who’ve struggled to fit their messy, tangled, ever evolving, life-long experience of grief into five neat stages will agree.