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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
After experiencing bereavement, grief can feel so overwhelming that it can be hard to know whether your feelings are normal or whether you may be suffering from trauma. Understanding the difference between grief symptoms and trauma can help you recognise a trauma response and know when and how to seek help.
Grief is a painful and complex set of emotions and can involve feelings of numbness, sadness, anger, and distress. It is a natural, human response to loss. There is no set grieving process, but over time, your feelings around your loss ebb and flow, and you find healthy ways to remember your loved one as you settle into a ‘new normal’.
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event. Sometimes, bereavement can result in trauma, for example, if the death was unexpected, a result of violent crime, or was out of the expected natural order, such as the death of a child or young person. In these cases, you not only have the loss to process, but also the circumstances around the death. A prolonged trauma response is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A trauma response is your body’s attempt at protecting you from perceived danger. It puts you into a state of hyperarousal, or ‘shock’, linked to the fight/flight/freeze responses. PTSD can present as agitation and aggression (fight), anxiety and hyperactivity (flight), and feelings of disconnection or numbness (freeze). Trauma can also produce physical effects, such as headaches, nausea, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, changes in breathing or swallowing, and panic attacks.
As your brain continues to revisit the trauma, you might experience flashbacks and vivid dreams or nightmares. The impact of these distressing symptoms can be emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting, and if left untreated, can cause long-lasting impacts on your health, relationships and daily life.
It’s normal to feel a range of emotions as you grieve. As long as you can continue to move forward by working through your thoughts and feelings about your loss and leaning on friends and family if you need to, therapy isn’t usually necessary.
However, if you have any of the psychological or physical signs mentioned above or dealing with grief is stopping you from living your day to day life, you may be experiencing trauma and should seek advice from a professional. Using alcohol or drugs to help you manage your grief can be another sign that you may need to ask for help. Sometimes, people might not spot the signs of trauma in themselves, but the people around them start to pick up on changes in their personality or behaviour and suggest that they seek help.
If you suspect you have trauma, a trained therapist or counsellor can carry out an assessment involving a series of questions designed to identify signs of trauma. They can then work with you to help you manage the symptoms and start to heal.
There are various ways of addressing and treating trauma and PTSD. When considering the available options, look for a service that delivers trauma-informed care, using specific techniques that avoid the risk of causing further trauma.
Trauma therapy or bereavement counselling can provide specialist treatment for PTSD. Two treatment modalities have been shown to be particularly effective in treating trauma: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and trauma-focused CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). You can find a therapist here.
Medication is not generally used as a first-line treatment option for PTSD but can sometimes be used alongside talking therapies. Your GP can advise you further.
Grief groups can provide additional support while you work through trauma and grief. We arrange various online support groups that can help connect you with other people going through similar experiences.
We asked some of our current members of our community to share their stories about how they come to terms understanding their grief and trauma.
Linn- “I personally liked not being pushed; it was great to know I could come back anytime if I changed my mind. You don’t want to think about things when you’re in that headspace; you want very few options – you want to do the very minimum to get where you want to be, and because of the simple form, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. The therapist I am matched with is great. I never felt like I had to stick with someone I didn’t like.”
Lexie- “I found the whole process so simple – within a week or so, I’d had an initial session with a counsellor, and I’m still having sessions now. It was one of those things that you don’t realise you need until you’ve had it. It was a nice, easy process that made dealing with it at a time of high emotion easier. Without Untangle, I wouldn’t have known who to contact. I didn’t know that grief counselling was a thing.”