Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages

Do we really grieve in five stages?
For years, we have been told that grief comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ever since they were introduced in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  the stages have become so embedded in our culture that they are now invoked to describe all kinds of loss. But recent research shows that grief is anything but linear and predictable. It helps to illustrate what I mean.

According to Kubler-Ross’s five stages, our emotions during grief would look something like this:

In fact, grief actually looks more like this:

We know this because in 2004, a psychologist named Toni Bisconti, now at the University of Akron in Ohio, measured grief frequently enough to know how it unfolded in real time. Bisconti and her colleagues asked recent widows to fill out questionnaires on their moods every single day for three months, and there were vast fluctuations: a widow might feel anxious and blue one day, only to feel light-hearted and cheerful the next. (Bisconti noted that the fluctuations might even happen several times a day, but her study was not designed to capture that.) The swings started out quite large and then gradually diminish over time, getting both weaker and less frequent. Bisconti concluded that her results, published in 2004, most closely resembled a linear oscillator, or a pendulum with friction, that looks something like this:

Which makes you wonder, what else have we been told about grief that is wrong?


5 Responses to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages

  1. The critiques I read here are answered in Kubler-Ross’ book on grieving. She acknowledges a wide and rapid fluctuation of feelings and emotions in the grieving process. She also notes variations in the explanation of each stage, cautioning readers that her descriptions should not be taken as rigid, unchanging portraits of the grieving process. Like any therapy or healing process her work cannot be idolized to the point of unyiedling dogma. Critics seem to believe she has done so but I believe this is a reaction to idolization by practitioners of her work. Tim Leary and Richard Alpert performed valuable research on the uses of LSD but their work cannot be generalized across the population. Similarly, the writings and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous work for many people, but they cannot be generalized across the addiction population. For a significant number of people AA will not work but other therapies are successful.

  2. Someone’s words best response – “The stages have evolved since their introduction and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

  3. I just read your book after seeing the TIME magazine article and it has changed my way of thinking and teaching about grief. I work with grieving children and I also teach about grief and grief issues to the public and police officers in training. Your research has actually validated some of my teaching where I shy away from the stages and call them “grief phases.” I never liked the stage theory approach, but in America, we like things clean and orderly. Thanks for the excellent research. It has certainly been an epiphany for me. Now get ready for the firestorm from the grief counselor apparatchik !

  4. I’m curious; does your book address whether it is reasonable to expect that someone diagnosed with a terminal illness (the original topic of On Death and Dying) will indeed go through something like the five stages? Or is that also a myth?

    • Ruth Davis Konigsberg

      Although my book, and the latest research, mostly examines the stages as they have been applied to grief (and finds them to be largely invalid, ) there is not much evidence that they hold true for the terminally-ill, the population Kubler-Ross originally based her theory upon. The stages of dying have not been put to the test in the same way as the stages of grief, but they were always largely anecdotal and not the result of systematic research.

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