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Why the “5 stages of grief/bereavement” model should be retired. Permanently. Now.

Why the ‘5 stages of grief/bereavement’ model should be retired. Permanently. Now.

Since starting my blog last year this is the first time I’ve skipped two blog days in a row.  It happened because I was planning on writing this particular blog (which proved challenging for me) and because I don’t actually decide which blog to write next.  What happens is that the next topic pops up in my brain and will refuse to step aside for any other blog topic until I’ve written it. Sounds strange I know…but these things have a life of their own.  So while I’ve been putting off writing this one none of the others have been allowed even a second thought.

I’ve put this off not because I’m unclear about how I feel on this topic, but because it is so incredibly different from almost everyone I meet in my field.  But seriously…enough of this 5 stages business. This has gone on long enough and it is really, really, really time for a change.

So here is my take on the 5 stages of grief/bereavement. The model is misused, misunderstood, and ridiculously outdated and it is time people started questioning it’s wisdom and value, because this happens far too little.  It is time we stopped using it.  I mean completely stopped using it.

Now if you’ve read my blogs before you’ll know I don’t make statements like that without backing them up…so bear with me….

You probably know of the 5 stages of grief.  Even if you don’t know what they actually are or that there are 5, most people are aware that there are supposed stages that you go through when you’ve lost someone.  That’s how commonly accepted this model is.  But few people know the background of this model…and that’s where the questions need to start.

The 5 stages or ‘Kübler-Ross Model’, as it became known, was first described by renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’ in 1969.  Kübler-Ross became known (and is probably still considered by many) as the leading authority on death and grief.  In this book she outlines the 5 stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.


Kübler-Ross herself states time and time again that her model was grossly misunderstood in that she ‘never meant for messy emotions to be put into tidy little boxes’.  She explained that the ‘stages’ weren’t in chronological order, nor did you finish one completely and move to another.  You might spend minutes, weeks, or months in one, she said, before flitting to another and back to one of the earlier. They were meant to be a range of expected emotional responses rather than steps. The only one with a set place was ‘acceptance’ which comes after the others.


What few people realise is that the 5 stages model was not originally based on people who were grieving.  Kübler-Ross’ original work was with people who had found out that they had a terminal illness and had a limited time to live.  The stages didn’t come about through engaging with people who were grieving the past death of a loved one, but through observing (note this word, we’ll be coming back to it in a serious way in a minute) those who were dealing with their own imminent future death.

By the time she wrote ‘On Grief and Grieving’ Kübler-Ross had identified the same ‘stages’ or emotions showing up for people grieving as well and this is why the model was also applied here.  And, unfortunately, it stuck.

The problem with this is that while, yes, both situations may cause the same emotions e.g. anger, depression…the reasons why you feel angry or depressed are completely different.  In fact I can’t think of a single traumatic event in your life that wouldn’t provide the opportunity to feel angry and depressed for example but the reasons why you feel this way will be wildly different. And if you don’t identify the ‘why’ underneath the emotion you may as well have it tattooed on your skin…because you won’t be able to resolve it.

Grief is not a set of stages or steps.  Grief is a very specific set of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and questions.  And depending on who you have lost these feelings, thoughts, and questions will be very different and will come up for very different reasons.  Simply identifying the surface emotion without questioning it doesn’t help anyone at all with any element of their grief…which leads me to my final point.


Don’t get me wrong.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and have read much of her work.  And I really like the woman.   She didn’t take much crap from people and she was determined to continue her work no matter how she was challenged (and she was seriously challenged in some frightening ways throughout her career).  She was a thought leader of her time.  She looked at an area that often went completely ignored and misunderstood and asked questions and looked for answers that few had before her, certainly very few in her field.  She worked incredibly hard, was a prolific writer, and helped people who, until then, had had no option for real help or assistance and had often been neglected.  But she was a psychiatrist.  And that was 1969.

1969 was 42 years ago. That is an incredible amount of time for a model like that to stand, virtually unchallenged, without any real additions or subtractions.  There are reasons why it stood (and not because the model was so sound) that I will get to in a minute.

And the psychiatrist bit.  Now if you had a problem today – say with work, a relationship, depression, an eating disorder, stress of any kind, or a drug addiction – are you more likely to see a psychiatrist or a specialist coach?

I would be very surprised if you said ‘psychiatrist’.

A psychiatrist’s work is not about change, or empowerment, or changing your perception with ‘quality questions’.  Psychiatrists’ work then (and still largely now) was about diagnosis and treatment. It was about understanding through observing (there’s that word again) rather than actual change.  So, although Kübler-Ross was certainly a more enlightened psychiatrist than most, her work was not about challenging grief, overcoming it, or healing from it. It was, very simply, about watching it closely and seeing what it looked like.  (And if you’d like to argue that she did talk about healing then consider that her definition was a little weak. She says herself in ‘On Grief and Grieving’ that acceptance is not about being ok with the loss of your loved one. That no-one is ever ok with it…and that acceptance is pretty much just accepting finally that they are gone and learning to cope with that fact.  That doesn’t sound like healing to me).

But this isn’t how we operate these days.  If we go to a coach or specialist for nutrition advice, fitness, mental health issues, money worries, career concerns, relationship issues…you name it… a) we don’t expect to be given the same info/advice that would have been handed out in 1969, and b) we expect to be helped. We expect this specialist to help us create real change in our situations and lives and get somewhere that we cannot get to by ourselves.  We do not expect just to be observed.

We want a fitness expert to get us fit. We want a physio to reduce or remove our pain. We want a coach to help reduce or remove our stress. We don’t see a business coach and expect them to listen to our woes, assure us things will get better over time, and make the next appointment.  We don’t get help with depression so the professional we see can hand us tissues, offer us a hug…and make the next appointment.  That isn’t helping, it isn’t empowering, and it simply isn’t good enough.

We live in a time of change. We understand that things don’t have to be how they first seem. We understand that true healing is possible from all sorts of things and that a change in how you look at something can change absolutely everything for us.  Except when we are dealing with death and grief. In this area, for some reason, people don’t believe real healing is possible or desirable.  They don’t expect grief counsellors and coaches to reduce or remove their pain. They expect them to listen, understand, offer a hug and make the next appointment. But we would not tolerate this is almost any other area of life.  So why here?


Here is what I think are the main reasons why this is an area that we don’t challenge, ask questions, or expect more.  Death is too big. It’s scary.  People don’t want to face it. Here in the UK I see a constant battle to raise discussion and awareness around death, planning, wills, etc.  But this isn’t something people like to do – think about death. It’s something you avoid, don’t touch, look at out of the corner of your eye.  So while the world is changing and we are questioning how many other things are done and dealt with, this one managed to slip by…because everyone is too busy pretending they can’t see it anyway.

The other reason is that not only is the general public not questioning grief, but the people they often see for help aren’t either.  This is totally understandable when the basis of a lot of teaching and training in this area is around the 5 stages model.  More and more, as I meet newer and more open-minded people in this industry I am encountering different and more logical, empowering views, but the larger percentage of workers around grief and death still believe what they’ve always been told….the 5 stages. So this is what they teach you too.

And so the 5 stages of grief/ bereavement have stood the test of time….not because they’re right, but because few people ever dared to question them.

Grief is not steps, stages, and it is certainly not a permanent place to live.  As I stated earlier, it is a specific set of emotions, thoughts, feelings, and questions, that get in the way of you remembering and loving the person you have lost.  And if you leave them unresolved (which most do) and never ask questions about them then yes, you may well bounce from anger, depression, denial, etc until you reach acceptance (which is basically where you get to when you have nowhere else to go and you start to forget them because it hurts too much to do anything else).

Take this quick example.  I worked with a client who had lost her mother a few years ago and was still very much grieving and in pain.  The thing that hurt her most was that she hadn’t been able to get to the hospital in time and wasn’t with her mother when she died.  And she was in great pain over this.  Perfectly understandable right?  A bit of denial and depression happening? She hadn’t yet reached acceptance…and anyway, this was something she would just have to learn to live with as it isn’t something you could ever truly heal from.  Right?

Not. Good. Enough.

Through some simple questioning I realised that the big problem was that she actually hadn’t wanted to be there at the time (hence why she was late) and felt so incredibly guilty, and like a bad daughter…and that was why she was in so much pain.  Once I helped her see that it was ok not to want to be there, it was ok that she wasn’t there (it’s tough experience, can be frightening, and it’s certainly not the best idea for everyone to be there), and that it worked out better for her mum that she wasn’t, it changed everything.  She describes herself now as grief-free and can think about and remember her mum so much easier than before when she was in pain.  Simply understanding and observing her grief through the 5 stages model, rather than assuming that healing is possible and asking some practical questions, would have left her exactly where she was.

If we don’t question what we are going through we will be stuck in it for a very, very long time.

I got into the work I do after losing my dad as well as a number of other family members in a short time and having some serious questions around the experience. I don’t need to tell you that the pain was indescribable….but early on I realised two things didn’t make sense to me. 1) that an event (death in our life) that was guaranteed to happen many, many times over would also weigh us down and hurt us forever.  It didn’t make sense that there wasn’t another answer, and 2) that the very thought of my dad, a man I loved and love so dearly, would be a cause of pain for me for the rest of my life, that this would be his legacy.  This was absolutely unacceptable to me.

True healing is possible from grief.  There are no stages or steps unless you don’t do anything to resolve what you are feeling, thinking, and asking.

It’s time we started  questioning grief the same way we do other areas of life.  It’s
time to stop accepting that the best thinking of 1969 is still the best thinking of today.  That is very rarely the case…and it certainly is not here.  It is time to retire this model and put it to bed.  We needed it before, we had no other model to use effectively to understand this experience….but that was then… had it’s time but we don’t need it anymore.

Please feel free to comment below.  I would love to hear your views, whether you agree or disagree with me. There needs to be waaaaaaaaay more discussion around this topic than is going on out there right now.






Melanie June 30, 2011 at 2:09 pm

What a wonderful post! I really enjoyed reading this and I couldn’t agree more. I think that one of the main issues is that, as you know, death and dying are still very taboo here in Britain. We are slowly starting to accept that it’s okay, even good, to talk about it openly – it’s not going to make it happen any faster. I think it’s right to question grief, both before and when it happens.

Kristie West June 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Thanks for the comment Melanie…and thanks for passing this on. You were one of the people who popped into my head when I talked about a newer, more open-minded type of person in the industry.
It is definitely time for people to start looking at grief and death in a different, more honest and open way. Time for an overhaul don’t you think?

Rebecca Little July 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for a really interesting post Kristie. I hope it’s okay that your post has evoked a strong (and long!) response that I’m sharing with you. I understand that there might not be any answers and certainly not simple ones if there are any. So please hear my questions as a search for understanding and if possible practical applications to my own situation. No challenge intended!

You got me thinking about my ‘expectations’ of grief. Never having really had to deal with grief or a significant loss before, I’ve been searching for ways to ‘begin to come to terms with’ what’s happened and why. As you say, when people talk about ‘coming to terms’ with loss it seems to mean simply ‘learning to live with the pain’ and ‘making sense of what has happened’, not real healing.

So even when I reach a place (if I ever do) where I can comprehend the extent of my loss and why it happened, it seems that according to established wisdom the most I can hope for is that eventually it will hurt a little less intensely and a little less often over time. However I definitely agree with you Kristie. For me it certainly isn’t just about the passing of time and getting through this dark time. Several people have said that it is not about DOing anything and that only time will dull the ache I feel. I’m so glad I’m not alone in refusing to accept that I’ll just have to live with this pain that I’ve been feeling or that the memories I have of being pregnant or giving birth or of holding my child may cause me pain for the rest of my life. In fact (bizarre as it may sound) those are the memories I have that bring me joy. It is the memories I didn’t get to create, the loss of my future with my baby, that evokes a feeling of sadness in me.

I’d hate to get to a place where I feel that I “have nowhere else to go” and that my only option is to begin “to forget [..] because it hurts too much to do anything else”. A couple of people have suggested that I need to ‘be in the moment’ and ‘accept what is’ and that it is about BEing not DOing. All good at a philosophical level, and quite possibly I am missing something vital that’s being said, but at a practical level I can’t exactly meditate my way through the next 6 months or year. I’m on a search for things I can practically DO during this difficult time and over the coming months to help me heal and in a way evolve as a result.

You say: “True healing is possible from grief. There are no stages or steps unless you don’t do anything to resolve what you are feeling, thinking, and asking.”

Okay, I accept that – so what now? Can your next post be on how I do that? On ways to resolve those things I’m feeling, thinking and asking, please?!!

I get the enormous limitations of Kubler-Ross’ 5 stage model and how it is clearly time for a massive overhaul of how we think about grieving. Having been there yourself, I imagine you’ve also experienced that sense of a loss of control and the disbelief that comes with having your assumptions about the world turned on its head. I think people grasp onto a model because they can somehow hope to use it as a way to regain a sense of control. You can look at a model and try to analyse where you are at and so gauge your progress of recovery. Obviously this is hopelessly wrong because this isn’t a broken leg we’re dealing with here. We don’t follow set patterns in grieving the way bones can mend over time and a broken leg can be expected to heal at a certain rate.

As an example of the K-R model’s limitations, in my experience, I’m not sure I’ve done Denial (at least as yet). This maybe due to my limited understanding of what this involves, but when you give birth to a dead baby there is really no choice but to fully acknowledge the situation. Of course there were and are still times when I wish that things had turned out differently – like when I see other first-time mums with their newborns, and of course I long to have that experience one day, but there is no denying that I’m a kind of nearly-mum without a baby. There are times, such as when I had not long been out of hospital and was driven in my car which still had the baby carseat in the back, when I could vividly imagine how I would be feeling had my baby not died. I could feel how every cell in my body would have felt if my little boy had been breathing and I had been on a journey to see friends so they could meet him for the first time, but I also fully felt the pain that accompanied the knowledge that this was not the case.

Accepting that K-R’s model is heavily flawed – in its misuse by people if not in its original conception, what’s the alternative? What are you proposing? What questions would it help me to ask myself or be asked?


Kristie West July 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Hi Rebecca,

thanks for your comment (there is an email in response to yours on it’s way too).
I really appreciate your post as it allows me to clarify some things.
You’re totally right in that one of the reasons that this model sticks is that people need something (anything) to feel like they have something to help or guide them and to date there hasn’t been a lot of useful stuff as an alternative. I went through all of the losses in my family, wasn’t happy with the type of ‘help’ on offer, and looked and looked and looked for something different…but couldn’t really find it. So I had to create it myself. I know how hard it is when you have nothing available but a ‘process’ you know is flawed. That’s why I put together the process that I take clients through now. It’s a step by step process designed to take people out of their grief. I don’t just suggest you blindly make a wish and start to heal. When I started looking for answers and help I was pretty much fumbling around trying to figure things out and ask a lot of questions and a lot of the assistance I got and useful things I found were quite coincidental i.e they were trying to teach me one thing but from that I figured out something totally different that I now use in my work. It took me 4 years all up from when my dad died to when I was healed and completely grief free. What I did was to go through my 4-year journey and work out what the steps/questions and thoughts were that got me to each next realisation, turn them into a process – and it is this that I take people through now. As I say in the blog grief isn’t just a bubble of pain, it’s a specific set of thoughts feelings and questions that make up that pain. My process/systems pulls those bits out in a very practical way and resolves them one by one. It’s not something one blog could hold.

Most of my blogs usually suggest an activity or different way of thinking about things, but I talk a lot about people’s beliefs around healing and grief rather than giving lots of my steps and there is a very good reason for this. The biggest reason people get stuck in grief is that they don’t believe there really is another option and they usually don’t believe another option would be ok or desirable anyway. Once people realise true and complete healing is possible, that it’s ok, and that it’s the best solution then they can work towards it then they are ready for some different questions and a different journey through their pain. Until that point I could give all the activities and steps in the world and it wouldn’t make a difference. The ideas of what grief looks like and how it affects and will affect us are so ingrained in society that some real re-education is required around this. In the session that I do with clients the first half is designed specifically to get them ok to do the second half. And the second half (where the real healing happens) can’t be touched until they are actually ready to let go of the pain.

I know it doesn’t feel like I’m given you any more to do but the very first thing is to realise that it will be ok not to grieve and be in pain. I’ve definitely taken on board what you say and will start to include a bit more of my steps and activities in what I write. I said I’d help you and I really meant it. I would love to get together with you and take you through my process and help you with this if that’s what you’re ready to do. xxx

PS a little about the ‘denial’ phase you mention. Though the 5 stages go largely unchallenged, if there is one bit that gets questioned or not talked about so much it’s this ‘stage’. Keep in mind that it isn’t an actual stage, but a predicted emotion, and that the stages were originally from people who found out they were dying. In this sense ‘denial’ as KR described it was when people cant believe they are going to die. Maybe they don’t even feel sick and yet they’re being told they’ll be gone within a few months. Denial is when they are saying ‘this can’t be right, it’s a mistake, this isn’t happening’, or when they are forgetting and walking round like everything is fine and normal as their brains just can’t quite get to grips with the info. As you say, totally different when you’ve lost someone. It might be hard to believe but you know its happened. You’ve been there, you’ve seen them, etc. How KR translated this stage into grieving was by saying that denial here is when you forget and go to accidentally pick up the phone and call them, or roll over in bed and are surprised not to find them there. It isn’t exactly a good fit at all….but she was sticking with her stages.

Greg Johnson July 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Excellent post Krisite! I thouroughly enjoyed reading it.

I would say that the “stages” are really only helpful for those of us who are looking to somehow quantify or understand grief in a clinical way. Unfortunately, as you’ve mentioned, they have been misunderstood and misused for decades – which can be very confusing for those who may be experiencing grief.

I completely agree that the only way to heal from your grief is for one to do their griefwork. However, I would also argue that the wounds of grief never completely heal. In both my own personal experience and in my experiences with others, I’ve found that while people are “healed” there are certain things that will trigger those emotions of grief to come rushing back to them – even 10, 20 years later. I can certainly remember and talk about my brother fondly nearly all of the time. However, I may hear a certain song or something that is said may spark a memory, and it makes me miss him at that moment. While I may not be in full-blown grief mode, I may grieve his loss again, if just for a few minutes. So, while I think you certainly can heal – even heal to near 100% – by putting in the work, I have yet to meet anybody who is completely grief-free.

Awesome post my friend! Keep up the good work!

Kristie West July 10, 2011 at 8:31 am

Hi Greg,
thanks for your comment and for sharing this!

You’re so right that it is important that people put in their ‘griefwork’ i.e. do something proactive about it rather than just expecting it to go away – because it won’t. And while when I work with my clients I aim to get them very close to it I don’t aim to get them to 100% completely grief-free, as it isn’t necessary. I do know that it is totally possible to get to that point though as that is exactly where I am…..and believe me, I have tested myself on this. So I can be the first person you’ve ever met that is. 🙂
It’s a rare rare thing though. In fact I’ve probably met 2 or 3 people ever (not clients) that I’d put close to totally grief free. On my scale of what grief-free looks like most I meet are only halfway there and it has everything to do with social understanding and beliefs around grief. Unfortunately society’s expectations of what healing looks like around grief are incredibly low.

So brilliant to see people in the industry now like yourself that have a deeper understanding of what the 5 stages is really about and the importance of addressing the pain rather than just watching it progress.

Thanks Greg!


moira mcdonald July 17, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Dear Kristie
I am working on an assignment for my Open University re; grief and while searching the web came across your blog. I came across K-R during my Nursing training many years ago…then was widowed at 34 with 2 young children and went through the ‘stages’ then 17 months ago my now Husband decided he no longer wanted to be married and left…..I have certainly gone through stages, but not as I did all those years ago…I agree with you, we do go through something, but not K-R stages, for some reason I will not allow myself to. I aknowledge that I am grieving for my marriage and the man I married is having a mid life crisis, but am working very hard on myself. I hope to keep following your blog…you are a vibrant ahead of your time writer…keep it up.
Kind Regards

Kristie West July 17, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Hi Moira, thanks for your comment.
If you need any help re your assignment then let me know. Happy to give info/advice around this topic.

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