Are The Stages Of Grief Real?

Where there's life, there's loss. The unfortunate truth is no one escapes loss, and we all experience a number of losses throughout our lives. Looking back on your life until now, chances are you can recall many times when you lost a relationship, job, opportunity, or even an aspect of your identity. Other times, you might have lost a loved one to death. In every case, it's natural to experience grief. Grief is a complex reaction to losing something or someone we care about (per  Alberta). When you're in the depths of grief, it can sometimes feel like your life is consumed by it.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross categorized grief into five stages in her well-known theory, according to a 2023 article published in StatPearls. She proposed that individuals with terminal illnesses can experience denial of their diagnosis, and believed they can feel anger as they learn their diagnosis is a reality. As they grapple with their illness, they may try to salvage their loss through bargaining or fall into depression. Finally, she believed that patients may come to accept their diagnosis. As noted by Psychology Today, this model was eventually used to describe what grieving individuals face when they lose a loved one to death. 

Some people have interpreted these stages in a sequential way, but Kübler-Ross expressed this wasn't her intention when creating the model. Many researchers believe that her five stages are outdated and flawed due to misinterpretation and lack of evidence to support them. 

Why we shouldn't rely on the five stages of grief

While many people have turned to the five stages of grief during times of loss, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' model has been widely misconstrued. 

As noted by McGill University, the five stages of grief weren't intended to illustrate how people grieve the death of their loved ones. The observations made by Kübler-Ross were based on case studies of individual patients coming to terms with their diagnosis of terminal illness and were not meant to generalize every person coping with the loss of a loved one to death. Because case studies describe the experience of a single individual, they are also considered the lowest form of evidence by researchers. As explained by a 2012 article published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, case studies are at the bottom of the levels of evidence hierarchy because of their increased risk of bias compared to systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials.

The stages of grief can be real for some and not for others. Some grieving individuals may experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; but not everyone does. If they do have these experiences, it may not be in such a cookie-cutter way. Kübler-Ross herself stated in her final book before her death that her five stages weren't meant to be linear, and not everyone experiences them in the same way — if they even do at all. According to Psychology Today, she expressed feeling regret over her five stages being misunderstood. 

Understanding your grief without relying on the five stages

According to a 2021 article published in Frontiers in Psychology, you should be mindful to not view grief reactions in rigid stages, as this could put pressure on you and make you feel like you're grieving incorrectly. No matter what you're feeling after your loss, you should know there's no correct way to grieve. You and a loved one could experience different thoughts and emotions in response to the exact same loss, and both of your reactions would be valid. 

Relying on the five stages of grief could make also you feel like you need to reach the acceptance stage to be healed from your loss. In reality, grief has no time limit; and it may never truly end in some cases, as noted by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The passing of time may allow you to adjust to life without the person or thing you lost; but triggers can randomly evoke feelings of grief, which is completely natural. 

Remember that you're never alone in dealing with your loss, and it's okay to reach out to others for support and connection. Support groups are available to provide grieving individuals with a safe space to process their loss with others who understand what they're experiencing, according to Mental Health America. You can also seek out the support of a grief counselor. Allow yourself to talk through your feelings about the loved one or the thing you lost without bottling them up inside.