05/10/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Redefining the 5 Stages of Grief

When people ask me what I do and I reveal that I work as a grief counselor, they often recoil in horror, ushering forth a series of well-meaning exclamations.

"Oh, isn't that hard?"

"That seems so sad!"

"I couldn't do that."

The truth is that I don't find it sad at all. When I talk to grieving people it's like looking at one of those negative image paintings -- the deeper the grief, the more evidence of love I see.

Something else I see on a regular basis is confusion over Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's The Five Stages of Grief. Everyone seems to know what they are -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- but most people find themselves at a loss when it comes to how to actually apply them to their grieving process.

The answer is simple, I tell them: The five stages are fluid. They are meant to be used as guideposts, as a framework, but not necessarily as a strict formula. You may go through some of them simultaneously, and others not at all. You may stay in one stage for years but move through other stages quickly. Everyone's journey of grief is different.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross herself says in the opening paragraph of On Grief and Grieving, "The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss. There is no typical loss."

I know that when I lost both of my parents within in a seven-year time frame, all before I was age 25, I went through a multitude of emotions and reactions, all encapsulated within the five stages. When I sat down to write about the experience in my memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, I wanted to demonstrate just how malleable the five stages are, and so I used them as a framework for my story.

Initially I was going to write a more straightforward dissection of the five stages, but it finally occurred to me that the best way to demonstrate how interchangeable the stages are would be using my own experience as an example. Breaking down my story this way helped me to understand the stages even better. Additionally, it led to another often-seen issue during the grieving process: the sense that one isn't grieving properly.

It seems that not only are people confused over how to use the stages of grief, but also they're confused about how to grieve in general. Over the years I've had people come to me with worries that they haven't grieved long enough, hard enough, that they have cried too much, or too little, or that their grief process is too different from someone who is experiencing a similar loss.

The bottom line is that there just isn't a right way to grieve, there's no easy way to heal, and there's certainly no time frame to adhere to. Yet without fail, the majority of people question the way they're going about it.

More often than not, this judgment on how to grieve comes not from you but from the people around you.

It's been six months, a friend might say to you.

After a year you have to move on, another might tell you.

Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only allots two months in its current assessment of grief.

Most of these parameters come from people who have never truly grieved themselves. Sometimes they're self-imposed. We tend to be hardest on ourselves when we're vulnerable.

What's important is that mourners need to work to discover their own journey of grief. Only you know what path you need to take toward healing, and whether you accomplish this using every one of the five stages, shunning books about grief or never missing a session of your bereavement group, the key will consistently be to listen to yourself. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross herself reminds us: "Our grief is as individual as our lives."

For more by Claire Bidwell Smith, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.