5 Stages of Grief: What You Need to Know

The devastating shooting in Vegas has us heartbroken and grieving. We don't understand why things like this happen. But they do and we have to learn what to do with how they make us feel. What do we do with the grief?

We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief, even if we can’t name all five of them. Anger, denial… some other things.

It’s okay if you can’t name all five stages because research has shown that the five stages are not, in fact, an accurate representation of how grief works.

The five stages of grief were discovered by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 60’s. They actually evolved out of her work with people who were dying, not those left behind.

People were immediately drawn to the stages in Kübler-Ross’s successful book, On Death and Dying, a revolutionary beginning to opening conversations around death and grief. (1) What we now know is people weren’t necessarily drawn to the accuracy of the stages, but that they gave a roadmap, or a sense of control, to a process that felt erratic and volatile.

What Grief Research Really Says

What psychologists have discovered about grief might be less organized, but is actually more optimistic than we might expect. We often think negative experiences will be worse than they actually are. (2) This points to the fact that we’re more resilient than we know. (3)

Because grief is fairly mysterious and is something we all dread (of course we don’t want to lose loved ones, or watch our marriage dissolve), we anticipate the experiences to be debilitating, crippling, horrendous.

The data show something else, thanks to a researcher by the name of George Bonanno from Columbia University. Over decades of study, he has categorized people’s responses to grief into three groups: prolonged suffering, recovery, and resilience. (4)

Prolonged suffering is what we think of when we think of a typical grief response. It’s the debilitating reaction, never fully recovering from a loss, or never returning to a steady state of well-being. Over multiple studies done across a variety of experiences that would cause one to grieve, Bonanno shows about 10% of people are in this category.

Around 30% of people fall into the recovery pattern. This is expressed as falling into deep sadness, and, over the course of a few months or a year, slowly returning to a stable sense of well-being. They’ll continue to feel sad about the loss, possibly for the rest of their lives, but it doesn’t impede their day-to-day life.

The most surprising finding is about 60% of people fall into the resilience category. Of course, they also feel the acute sadness of a tragic event, but over the course of a few days to weeks, they feel okay and soon returns to normal functionality.

This might make a few of us pause. If someone is doing well just a few days after a loved one has died, aren’t they repressing their emotions? Bonanno takes this into consideration when measuring resiliency, looking at a variety of factors to determine if someone is doing as well as they say.

His understanding of the findings is we’re designed to deal with stress and loss. Throughout our history of hunting and gathering, if humans were immobilized by their sadness, they wouldn’t be able to continue protecting themselves or their community.

Although this might be true, there are many things that influence our response to grief, some of which can be trained and others that remain outside our control. I didn’t fall into the resilience category when I lost my brother. What do I do with these findings, especially given the falsity of the five stages? What resources can I pull from?

The Power of Community and Ritual

In his short book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Sorrow…turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.”

Historically, we had ceremony and ritual around grief. We wore clothes to represent our grief, engaged in certain social customs, got together as a community and wailed or held vigil for days on end.

Over time, we’ve drifted away from those rituals. (5) Ceremony was replaced with science, and if something was not scientifically backed, it became silly. Our culture turned more individualist, and grieving became internal work you were meant to do alone, instead of surrounded by others.

Some cultures have not yet forsaken tradition. In China, they continue to talk with the deceased, or provide offerings, incorporating their passed loved ones into their everyday lives. (6) In New Zealand, the Maori people watch over the body of a lost one with their community members for three days, never leaving it unattended. (7)

Although we haven’t drawn a direct scientific correlation between rituals and healing, there is information about the resiliency of other cultures that incorporate these practices. Their process of engaging with their communities helps people navigate this process that has no map.

How to Reconcile Grief in our Society

The five stages aren’t to be trusted, we don’t have a ceremony, and we’re faced with a messy process with no map. What do we do?

Bonanno shares this recommendation: “If you think you’re doing okay, then you’re doing okay.” Even in the grips of my own grief, I often felt like things were okay. Was I fully functional every day? No. Did I feel more emotions than I thought my body could hold? Definitely. Was I left with a sense of despair that I’d never again find joy in my life? No.

There are endless responses to grief, and it can be hard to know if we’re doing it “right,” especially given there is no “right.” Still, if you have a general sense of okay-ness, stick with it. Take care of yourself. Invest in your community members who aren’t afraid to be with you as you journey through uncharted territory. Create a ritual that allows you to wail, thrash, or sit quietly and light candles. Whatever you need. And if you don’t know what you need, explore different options until one sticks.

If you don’t have a general feeling of being okay, seek professional help. We aren’t meant to do grief alone. We’re social beings. Counselors, therapists, and doctors are part of that community and are trained to help us navigate these unfamiliar waters. They’ll also be able to help you train in resilience so that you inch yourself towards a more equanimous state. It’s not a defeat to recognize we need help. We don’t get to choose our genes or life experiences, but we do get to choose what we do with them.

If you’re questioning why you haven’t moved through the five stages of grief, it’s okay to let go. I never experienced a few of them myself, and I don’t think it’s because I’ve repressed emotions. Even though grief is frightening, we can learn to trust ourselves through the process. We were made to face adversity and bounce back. And when we don’t, something else might be getting in the way, and we need extra help identifying it.

Grief is messy. It’s uncontrollable, to some extent. And yet it’s something we can work on, and ultimately, hold space for as it unfolds in its own mysterious way. We never quite know what she’s going to dish out, Lady Grief. Still, we have all the resources we need, not only to survive, but to thrive, learn, and ultimately, support one another.

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