What is grief? It’s a universal human experience, but everyone’s journey is different. That being said, most people think of the much-publicized five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. How accurate are these stages? Is something missing?
A history of grief
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was not the first person to map out grief, but she’s the most well-known. In 1969, Kubler-Ross described five stages of grief. Denial comes first. After experiencing a loss, a person is in shock. Their emotions are numb for a time. The second stage, anger, includes asking the big “Why?” Why did this happen to me? In bargaining, a person begins thinking about “if only’s” and “what if’s.” They imagine scenarios where the loss didn’t happen. With depression, a person becomes burdened with sadness. Finding motivation for life’s routines is difficult. With acceptance, the last stage, a person acknowledges what’s happened and makes peace.
These stages have been applied to many situations, including losing a loved one. It’s important to know that Kubler-Ross developed her theory from patients reacting to a terminal illness diagnosis. It didn’t look at how their family and friends responded when they were gone.
Grief is not linear
While Kubler-Ross contributed significantly to the field of grief psychology, science doesn’t support the five stages. One of the big problems, which Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged, is that they imply a linear progression. In reality, everyone experiences grief differently. The journey isn’t a straight line. Someone might find themselves immediately angry about a loss, skipping over denial. They might sink back into depression after a brief period of peace. The stages can make a person feel like they are grieving the “wrong way,” which makes the experience even harder. While the stages can be a useful tool in identifying certain emotions, they are by no means one-size-fits-all.
The role of anxiety
Newer research shows that anxiety is a major part of grieving. Claire Bidwell Smith, a therapist and author, writes about how anxiety manifests frequently in grieving clients. However, because it isn’t a part of the five stages, most people don’t realize their loss brought on the anxiety. Grief-triggered anxiety can be extremely disruptive, popping up in the form of panic attacks and fixations on death. It makes sense that anxiety would naturally arise with loss since loss proves that life is not predictable or permanent. With therapists like Bidwell Smith shedding light on grief-triggered anxiety, it will hopefully become a more recognized part of grief.
What to remember about grief
Modern Western society is not good with grief. Our work-driven culture doesn’t give people the time and space they need to process. An emphasis on “positive thinking” can make it difficult to sit with sadness. Remember: the stages of grief are not guidelines for the “right” way to grieve. Everyone’s experience is unique. That doesn’t mean we need to be alone. There are resources like Refuge in Grief, an online community led by grief expert/author Megan Devine. A good therapist can help with the grieving process, as well.
Grief-triggered anxiety looks a lot like regular anxiety, but it has a specific cause. Millions of people have anxiety that isn’t related to grief. Here are the general types.