Do the 7 stages of grief really exist?
Many of us have heard about the 7 stages of grief – different emotions you go through during bereavement – but experts now say this idea may not be the most helpful.
What are the 7 stages of grief?
The 7 stages of grief are based on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She developed 5 stages of grief in 1969, but two more were added over the years to help strengthen the model.
The 7 stages are:
• shock and denial
• pain and guilt
• anger and bargaining
• upward turn
• reconstruction and working through
• acceptance and hope
Why the 7 stages can be unhelpful
While it may be useful to know what emotions or sensations you might experience, grief doesn’t follow a neat, straight-forward pattern. Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Care, says grief cannot be split up into a series of stages that you move through, one after the after.
‘That expectation to move from one stage to the next isn’t always helpful,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to experience an emotion, like anger or acceptance, at a certain time.’
Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and author of The Grief Collective, says, ‘You could feel hopeful one day and angry the next, or even within the next moment.’ Or you might not experience either emotion at all.
There are no rules for how long each stage of grief lasts either, leaving you wondering if you’ve processed your grief ‘properly’ if you didn’t feel depressed or in denial for very long.
What’s a better way of understanding grief?
‘Imagine grief as a grey circle,’ says Adrienne Kirk, a psychotherapist who specialises in grief. ‘Rather than that grey circle shrinking over time, we grow around our grief. It stays the same size, but we learn to accommodate it and find a way of living with it.’
So should we ignore the 7 stages?
It can be helpful to know what feelings we might experience during bereavement – so the 7 stages are useful from that perspective – but you won’t be able to tick off each stage like a To Do list. However, Adrienne says there are normally 2 pathways through bereavement that we do tend to follow
One is dealing with all the legal and admin stuff, and the parallel pathway is all the emotions. ‘Grief normally switches between the two before settling somewhere in the middle, but you can get stuck on one or the other,’ she says. If that happens, you may find yourself bottling up your feelings and “being strong” to get through all the paperwork and events or, vice versa, feeling weepy, anxious and unable to cope.
To help you get ‘unstuck’, contact Cruse Bereavement Care or The Good Grief Trust. But don’t worry if this also doesn’t sound like your experience; grief is very individual, and everyone deals with it differently.
Whatever emotions you do or don’t experience, remember grief isn’t one-size-fits-all. Marianne says, ‘There’s normally a bit of everything in a bereavement journey: bargaining, anger, guilt, sadness. They’re like puzzle pieces rather than seven stages. And it’s OK to ask for help, whatever emotion you’re going through, whenever you go through it.’