The grieving process is the name that the common name given to a psychological theory known to experts and scholars as the Kubeler-Ross model. Like all psychological models, this process is simply a set of guidelines that experts can use as a guide to counseling clients. It is not necessarily based on science but, rather, is based upon some observations made by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who first introduced the theory in her famous book On Death And Dying in 1969. This article is a brief overview of the grieving process, how it was developed, and at least one of its competing alternatives.
The grieving process itself is often memorized in its entirety by counseling students and even lay people who desire to help their friends, acquaintances and loved ones who find themselves struggling with the loss of a loved one. Here are the famous stages with a brief explanation of each one.
The first stage is Denial, the fooling of oneself into believing that the loss has not actually happened. The second stage of grieving is Anger, the rage that a grieving person expresses (very often at those who are trying to help) upon finally realizing the magnitude of the loss. The third stage is Bargaining, the period in which a person suffering from grief attempts to work deals (with loved ones or even God) that he or she believes will ease his or her suffering. The fourth stage is Depression, the lonely period of quiet suffering in which a person finally begins to truly process the grief. The final stage of the grieving process is Acceptance, the uplifting period in which a grieving person can finally be said to be “free” of grief. Taken together, the first letters of each of these stages adds up to the very familiar acronym DABDA. Many a college professor has ended emotionally wrenching lecture on these stages with a humorous note about the acronym. It seems that plenty of clever, funny rhymes can be found for this grief-formed word. Such humor may seem out of place in a discussion about helping others cope with the loss of a loved one but, in fact, experts uniformly declare that laughing, even at off-color or mildly blue humor, can be a good antidote to the negative affects of healing. When it comes to grieving, laughter really is, many experts and patients alike can testify, the best medicine.
It is important to note that, while many people mistakenly believe this to be the case, these stages of the grieving process were never intended to be interpreted as being something that a person experiences in a linear time fashion. Rather, the grieving process is something that even experts describe as an emotional roller coaster. It is quite common, in fact, for a person suffering from the loss of his or her family member to legitimately be in the final stage of grieving – acceptance – for weeks immediately after the loss of a loved one and then to, suddenly, find himself or herself in one of the other stages that, literally speaking, are actually below the 5th stage of grief. Experts caution that novices who are tempting to help those in the grieving process that jumping from one stage to another like this is quite healthy and to be expected. In fact, at least one expert has written an entire book on the simple fact that , if a person does follow the grief stages in exact order, that could very well be a sign that the grieving person is just acting his grief for public benefit and that, internally, he or she is a psychological wreck who is experiencing the roller coaster of grief quite naturally, but without benefit of a true friend who can assist with the struggle.
An interesting bit of trivia about the development of the grieving process may also shed some light on how it works and how it should be used (and it has also led to the considerable criticism that has spawned alternative models that many psychologists employ). Kubler-Ross did not observe people who had suffered a recent loss of a loved one. Rather, in compiling her book, On Death and Dying, she spent a great deal of time carefully studying people who were suffering from terminal illness – in other words, she developed the stages of grief by documenting the final days of many people who were, themselves, dying. As trivial as this may sound to users of the grieving process, it actually can have a powerful affect – even comforting – especially if the person using the theory suffers from grieve over the loss of someone who battled a terminal illness for some time. This knowledge gives the person suffering with grief a means of identifying with the feelings that very likely were experienced by the deceased friend or loved one in his or her last days. And that can do wonders for the mental state of the griever. It has a way of putting the grieving family members spiritually in touch with the lost loved one and, with that, the loss may not feel so permanent after all.
One big draw back to this story of the birth of the theory that led to the stages of grief, of course, is that it was developed by studying an entirely different class of people than those it is commonly used to help. As any beginning graduate student in just about any science based field knows, this is a dubious position for any theory to be in. And, given that position, it can be said to be nothing short of a miracle that so many people (perhaps millions) have claimed that understanding the stages of grief has helped them to persevere through difficult bouts of grief (some struggles take decades to see themselves through). Few other theories can have such a mismatch in their development and still be given such credit for healing. Further, it is very interesting to note that it is widely accepted, even by those who use the five stages of grief routinely in their professional practices, that the theory has never been adequately tested through the scientific process (and, if it was tested, it’s almost universally assumed that the theory would be quickly debunked. The previously mentioned discrepancy between how it was developed and how it is commonly used is almost enough to make that clear without even lifting a finger to plan a scientific study.) It is almost as if the grieving process should be thought of as a work of literature or philosophy rather than as a piece of science. Fortunately for the practitioners of counseling and psychology, however, literature and philosophy (combined, often, with theology) have led to many strategies that are successful with clients.
Nevertheless the scientific drawbacks of the grieving process have led to many alternative models that have, for their practitioners, proved just as helpful. One famous expert has shown – this time through scientific research – that most people who lose a loved one do not show much hint at what can be thought of as “grief.” Rather, his research shows, people tend to stay perpetually in the state that the process of grief would call “acceptance.” Resilience is another term that experts who prefer this later model often use. The model that has sprung from this line of thinking contends that grief simply does not exist and, therefore, there are no stages of grief. The process of grief, in that case, would be far less complicated and issues that might be confused as being caused by grief – such as lashing out at loved ones who are trying to help –would fall under the realm of some other psychological model, one that has nothing to do with the loss of a loved one.
While the book is still proverbially out on the grieving process, it has, indeed, been a tremendous help to people across the world for decades.