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You are probably aware of the theory that after experiencing bereavement, we go through stages of grief. The well-known theory describes five stages, while others describe six, or seven stages.

But, what if this widely accepted theory is wrong and there is no set grieving process at all? What if everyone grieves in their own way?

Here at Untangle, we believe that the long-standing stages of grief theory is misleading and unhelpful and fails to accurately represent how most people experience grief.

The Five Stages of Grief Theory

The 5 stages of grief model was developed by psychiatrist Kübler-Ross in 1969. Although grief models had been discussed before this time, it was Kübler-Ross’s theory that gained traction and made it into the public psyche.
The 5 stages of grief described in the model are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Over time, people came to think of the 5 stages of grief as the ‘correct’ way to grieve, believing that mourners must pass through each stage to complete the grieving process. In the years since its first publication, the theory has been debunked by many professionals. In fact, it’s reported that before her death, Kübler-Ross herself expressed regret at how her model was viewed. She said that it was never intended to suggest a linear progression through grief, but rather to explore the various reactions we might have after loss.

David Kessler: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Kessler is a death and grief expert who co-wrote two books with Kübler-Ross, as well as many  of his own books. One of his theories builds upon the 5 stages of grief to add a sixth stage: finding meaning. Kessler argues that after we pass through the grieving process, we can transform grief into peace and hope by finding meaning in our life.

Seven Stages of Grief

At various times over the years, others stages have been added to Kübler-Ross’s model, too. You might have heard of the 7 stages of grief, which adds ‘shock and disbelief’ as stage one, and ‘reconstruction’ before the final stage of ‘acceptance’. Just as with the 5-stage and 6-stage grief theories, this presents a rather linear process that we don’t think is true to life.

Other Theories

In more recent years, many counselling and bereavement experts have looked for other ways to describe our experience of grief. Most acknowledge that grief isn’t a linear process and that people experience it in different ways.

1. Tonkin’s model: Growing around Grief

Lois Tonkin is a grief counsellor who coined the term ‘growing around grief’ after counselling clients who had experienced loss. She describes that rather than grief disappearing over time, it stays roughly the same, and the life of a bereaved person grows around it as they have new experiences and begin to look forward. At times, that grief can feel just as painful as it did at the beginning, and at other times, it’s in the background.

2. Worden’s theory: Tasks of Mourning

William Worden, a psychology academic and child-bereavement expert, identified four ‘tasks’ that he says are an active part of grieving. He stresses that the tasks are not completed in a linear fashion and that people often return to each of the tasks at different times of their lives.

The fours tasks are:

3. Stroebe and Schut: The Dual Process Model of Coping

Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model breaks down grief into loss orientation and restoration orientation. Loss involves recognising and accepting that the person has died and how that affects other areas of life such as friendships and finances. Restoration focuses on the moments we can put grief aside to rebuild a life without the person who died. People frequently move between the two as they grieve.

Why it matters

The stages of grief model has become so widely accepted that it influences our cultural beliefs and attitude towards supporting people who have experienced loss. These misconceptions not only impact our ability to offer good bereavement support, but also give the impression that if you’re not moving through the stages of grief then you’re not grieving properly.

A 2010 study found that the majority of undergraduate psychiatric nursing textbooks contain myths about the grieving process:

None of these statements is backed with evidence, but they are presented to psychiatric nursing students as fact. That means that  even our healthcare professionals are not taught how to handle grief effectively.

Part of our passion at Untangle comes from recognising these gaps in the current bereavement support provision. We want to provide wellbeing support and practical help for our community of people who are rebuilding their lives after loss.