Denial.  Anger.  Bargaining.  Depression.  Acceptance.  You may recognize these five words from the seminal work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in which she took the time to interview dying patients exploring the nature of their physical and psychological experience.  Her research invited delineating five stages as she called them and as are listed above.  As those of us who have worked with the dead and dying, we quickly realized that the experience of the dying was mirrored in the experience of the grieving.  While her initial research proved a challenge to the practice of medicine of her day, the insight that grieving people experienced these five stages as well proved even more helpful than solely working with the dying. 

Her work has come under tremendous pressure and criticism especially the past decade or so.  Some writers of grief have come to see these stages as irrelevant in terms of the grieving process.  The challenge certainly rests in a couple of cultural norms most especially in the United States.  First, we tend to look at stages as a progression in which we traverse stage one and move to stage two believing we will no longer ever experience stage one again.  We see the stages as a linear movement with no overlapping.  Second, culturally, we believe with stages that the stages lead to a finish line; lead to a time when grief will be spared and feelings for the departed will be minimalized or at least measurably less painful.  Irrespective of these cultural norms, people struggled to embrace what Dr. Kubler-Ross meant with this insight. 

Once these stages are freed from a rigid, linear interpretation, we are then able to play with these stages as they speak to our experience of death and grief.  Perhaps in a perfect world one travels these stages in the order her research indicated.  Yet, once a rule is stated or set, life forms around the exceptions and these stages are no exception.  Let’s explore how these might be helpful for us as we grieve.

First, I want to change from using the word “stage” to using the word “phase”.  As mentioned above, stage invites linear thinking with clear boundaries while phase suggests the possibility of overlapping and of carrying some of all phases in each phase.  We can imagine the five phases as experiences that most grieving people will share to one degree or another in as unique a way as each of us is made.  We bereaved also know that no simple formula works towards healing.

Second, I invite you to open yourself to this and any other thought, process, or suggestion that might help in the lifelong process of grief recovery.  Each person grieves uniquely knowing full well that their healing process can pivot on a dime.  In a recent book I’ve written about grief set free and what I meant was honoring in real time the fact that each person grieves on his or her own, each path is worthy, each person hopefully embraces the grief choices of their personal lives.  In the Big Book of AA there is this quote in the appendix on spiritual experiences: “There is a principal which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – contempt prior to investigation.”[1]

We bereaved parents live with restless hearts.  We continue adapting to life without the child we believe “should” still be alive and with us.  In our own quiet way, we seek to grow in our life and in our love.  Stay open!


[1] AA Big Book