There are no stages of grief.
At least not in the way they’ve been portrayed. A lot of people talk about them like five things on a to-do list, that we have to achieve in order to “finish” grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But of course, it’s just not that simple.
In fact, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – attributed with saying there are five stages of grief – wasn’t talking about that as such in the way it’s been interpreted, when she began the conversation. She was actually referring to what she had observed when people were dying, and how they felt towards the end of their lives. Her message – based on important work framing the experiences of the terminally ill – has been to some extent diluted around the world ever since.
In fact, the false idea of grieving as a tick list has become so reductive that we assume we must “get over it” within a short period of time. And if we don’t, we worry we must be getting grief “wrong”. But it takes as long as it takes. Grief is a journey we must all navigate at some point in our lives and no one can do it for us. And how it feels – and how it shows up – can be different for everyone.
I discuss this in my book Answers in the Dark.
I explain that emotions can range from those you might not even have considered like guilt, jealousy – even relief. You might even feel nothing at all for a while – and that’s normal. You might feel anger that the one you love has died, especially if it’s unexpected, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel that emotion just once or that it won’t come back again. The way the five stages have been interpreted over time implies that’s the case, but there isn’t an order to what you will feel and even if there was, there’s no time-frame associated with it. There is no simple formula we can apply when grieving nor should we, except perhaps that we allow ourselves the space and time we need. Whilst there might be things we can order for next day delivery if we can afford it, we can’t hurry grief.
Grief, then, is more like a roller-coaster than a flight of stairs; and it doesn’t just belong to death. We can grieve for anything that mattered to us that’s no longer there. A relationship breakdown. The loss of a job we’ve done for 30 years. Even a child leaving home for university. All grief is valid.
Which is why it can be so unhelpful when friends and colleagues don’t help. When someone you care about dies or something meaningful comes to and end, people who genuinely mean well will often offer thoughts and platitudes to try and help you feel “better”. The reality is though, even though they’re not trying to be unhelpful, that some of what they say can be inappropriate, even lack empathy. This reinforces the idea that we’re not following the “stages” when in fact our grief is unique to each of us. Their commentary can sometimes imply there is a ‘right way to grieve’. Grief doesn’t work like that.
As a society, at least in some parts of the west, we are woefully ill-prepared to talk about difficult and uncomfortable things. We are solution focused and so have been taught to some degree, to try and “fix” people when they’re sad.
To cheer them up.
To rally them out of pain.
The trouble is their good intentions can leave us feeling misunderstood, frustrated – even annoyed. So when they say things like “At least you’re still young, you can always find someone new’ or “I know exactly how you feel”, you might glaze over or shut down. You stop talking about how you feel. And because of that, they may then assume you’ve “moved on”, which as Nora McInerny explains in the video below, is just not how it is. So friends stop asking how things are and it becomes an unspoken cycle of emptiness, where no one talks about what needs to be said. Not feeling heard by those around us when we are suffering can be a lonely experience, and so if we are not given permission to feel what we feel, our grief can go underground.
We can’t outsource our pain so we have to find our way through in ways that are meaningful.
This is why I think it’s time we change the way we talk about grief and loss.
Conversations around death and dying, loss and bereavement need to start with recognising that everyone is different and allowing people to feel what they feel. The way I mourn for a loved one will be different to the way you grieve, and depend on many things. My feelings could range a variety of emotions, just as yours might swing between all of them and none. But it’s also important to remember that even with all the support in the world, we never really “get over” the loss of a loved one; at least not if being “over it” means we forget – that’s not going to happen. What we can do, is find a way forward from what’s happened, knowing it will always be a part of the journey even if it changes shape over time.
If you’re not sure what to say to a grieving friend, Megan Devine offers some thoughts in her video below. It often starts with acknowledging what they’ve been through and it’s ok to start with “hello”.
Copyright Delphi Ellis 2022