The Myth Of The 5 Stages of Grief

02/22/2017 08:27 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017
Jake Melara

Like many people experiencing a major loss I googled the five stages of grief pioneered by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. I was looking for a roadmap of what to expect and hoping it would help me understand how to navigate my own grief. I quickly found the five stages didn’t seem relevant to what I was experiencing. For instance, I wasn’t angry—I never got angry about my husband dying from cancer. I just wasn’t. I even wondered if something was wrong with me since I thought anger was one of the five stages of grief I should be experiencing. I also didn’t seem to be following the stages in the order listed. Instead, as a longtime meditation practitioner I clung to meditation by a thread. Throughout the first year after my husband’s death my meditation consisted of me sitting, taking a deep breath and then bursting into tears. So many tears that I thought there would never come a day when I didn’t cry. Still, I went back, sat, breathed, cried and repeated.

As more time passed I came to understand that I was on my own journey through grief. It was filled with its own realizations, steps forward and backward, pain, laughs, sadness and even at times happiness. It did not follow stages and in fact was not linear at all. It was the opposite of linear. Along the way I continued to wonder if what I was experiencing was normal. Grief isn’t something that I had much experience with up to that point in my life. I not only hadn’t experienced a big loss but no one remotely close to me had died. No one I knew ever even talked about grief or loss. In America at least, death and loss are still somewhat shrouded in hushed tones and uncomfortable brief exchanges of condolence. Honestly, pet loss is the one kind of loss that seems to be the most out in the open. My own grief has led me to want to learn more and reach my hand out to others whose grief is still fresh. Always a bit of a research nerd I began to study the current thought on how we grieve. This is when I discovered that, although very well-known, the Kubler Ross model is not at all how we grieve. In fact, her work looked at the emotions of terminally ill patients prior to death not grief after a death.

It turns out that grief is a personal journey. There are not stages and it is definitely not linear. We are all different and how we grieve is going to be unique to us. Many things will influence how we grieve—how close we are to the loss, how resilient we are, and what kind of support network we have. Here’s what I wish I’d known during the first few years of living with my own grief.

Grief is a perfectly normal response to loss

It is not an illness or a disorder. It’s a process and everyone’s process will be different. If you have a prior history of severe depression or anxiety you may want to stay in touch with a mental health care professional. If you need help don’t hesitate to ask for it but it’s also okay if don’t need any outside help.

You may lose friends

Death and grief are scary to many people. They may feel uncomfortable around you because they don’t know what to say or because by acknowledging your loss means in some way facing their own feelings about death.

Grief is stressful

Think about how you deal with stress and know that you will employ all your skills and tools to navigate grief. My own meditation practice became a vital part of dealing with my own grief.

There’s no way around it

For many people grief is painful, raw, sad and uncomfortable. It may feel like you’re coming out of your skin. Still, the only way to process grief is to go through it.

Grief rebuilds you

One part of grief is about loss and raw emotions. The other part will rebuild you, it will change you and you will grow.

Time does heal

As trite as this saying might sound thankfully it’s also true. Over time the emotional intensity around your loss will change and lessen. It does get better.

Lastly, there’s no normal or right or wrong way to grieve. There’s only your way.

CONVERSATIONS