In 1969, psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross did some studies on terminal patients. She wanted to figure out what factors come into play when we face death. After a long period of research, she realized that her patients went through very similar stages. She then started to develop her theory of the stages of grief.
In this article we’re going to try to shed some light on Kübler-Ross’ theory of the stages of grief. To start, we’re going to explain each stage. After that, we’re going to do a little reflection on the evidence behind it and what it means.
The stages of grief according to Kübler-Ross
The stages of grief incorporate the attitudes people have when they confront death. It’s what your mind does as it tries to solve the problem. But since it’s not exactly a problem that we can solve, our emotions go all over the place until we reach a place of acceptance.
- Denial. This involves denying or ignoring death when it’s close. It can happen in a complete sense (“There’s no way I’m dying”) or a partial sense (“I have cancer, but it’s no big deal”). Denial is basically your ego taking a defensive attitude. Your mind tries to find a way to maintain your well-being, even though this is a situation where it’s powerless.
- Anger. Anger is an emotion that comes up when we have to face an obstacle. After getting terrible news, it’s common for our bodies to try to solve things through anger. It can have a lot of victims or targets, including yourself, your doctors, or even God.
- Bargaining. Once you see that anger can’t solve the problem, that’s when bargaining will happen. You desperately ask fate or some divinity to make death go away. It’s quite common for people to become “docile” out of a hope that they’ll live longer by being good. For example, they’ll follow their medical prescriptions to a T.
- Depression. Depression shows up when an illness gets worse, or when the awful reality becomes clear. You fall into a serious depression because you feel deeply powerless. However, this deep sadness means you’ll waste fewer resources on an unsolvable problem.
- Acceptance. Once you’ve left behind the feeling of powerlessness, you move on to a much less intense, much more neutral state of mind. But that doesn’t mean you don’t still have your moments. When you’re in the acceptance stage, you internalize everything that’s happened and lift your head up and look toward the future. You may also start to positively reinterpret the meaning of the loss, without blaming anyone.
Evidence for the theory and what it means
The Kübler-Ross theory has been criticized. One common, understandable criticism has to do with how rigid the original theory was. According to the first version, if you were going through these stages, you had to move on to the next stage or you’d get stuck in the one you were in. There was no flexibility.
However, current research and maybe some of your personal experiences show how that’s not true. It’s common for people to go backwards and skip a stage. There are also people who go through the stages in a completely different order.
Of course, it’s still true that every stage plays an important role. The stages line up pretty well with how most people process their grief. But maybe the best thing would be to interpret the different states of mind as attitudes toward loss, not stages.
The Kübler-Ross theory is incomplete, true. But it was a huge step forward in our understanding of grief. Her research helped us reach a much deeper understanding of the emotions we go through after a loss.
As a result, we’ve been able to treat grieving people better because their feelings are normalized in it. Her model has also helped psychologists treat anticipated losses, like in cases of terminal illness.