Grief Is Messy

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Kübler-Ross was trying to do the world a service with her five stages of grief, and it has helped, but her model has ended up causing a lot of harm too because people take it too literally. They think they should be passing through neat, clearly defined stages, and start to question whether something is wrong with them if they aren’t.

But grief is messy, it’s not neat. The five stages of grief should not be taken too literally. They’re more like an outline to help you make sense of confusing thoughts and emotions by providing categories. But denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are all going to enter the picture at different times, sometimes all mixed together. They’re probably not going to occur as discrete, chronological, easily identifiable stages. And the last stage, acceptance, might not ever happen if by acceptance what is meant is getting over the loss and moving on with life. Can we ever expect to get over the loss of the people who are most important to us? Should we even want to?

Like we’ve written elsewhere, the only ‘wrong’ way to grieve is to deny how you are really feeling, to refuse to accept the truth of your existential state as it is. The only ‘right’ way to grieve is to accept your thoughts and emotions without censure or judgment, to have the courage to feel what you are feeling whether these feelings sync up with your expectations or not. Otherwise you’re forcing a square peg into a round hole, you’re trying to adjust your authentic experience to some theoretical model. If the stages of grief feel real to you and help you make sense of what you’re going through that’s great, but if they don’t this doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you or that there’s anything abnormal about how you are grieving. It might only mean you are a unique individual with unique experiences who is working through your loss in an authentic way.