Grief Myth: Are There Really 5 Stages of Grief?

Originally published Thursday, 12 October 2017.

Grief myth: 5 stages of grief | Christian grief | widow

Six years ago, I went to bed happily married and woke up a widow and single mom to seven. That day, as I stared at the pieces of my shattered life and my shredded heart, I also began to think about the road of grief that lay ahead.

I had no idea what it would entail. How long does it actually take to grieve a love story that had taken 30 years to write? How could I even detach from the man who’d been my best friend since 11th grade? The one who had wooed my heart, called me his, loved me more ferociously at 46 than 16? Whose commitment pushed through hormonal pregnancies and years with a bare bank account and days when all the shine had dulled in the mundane ordinary?

How does a person grieve that?

I found there are pithy statements and even some formulas given out to those grieving. Some of it was helpful and healthy information, but some it just didn’t hold up.

This month, I want to uproot some of the grief myths.

Maybe you’re not in a season of grief. You probably know someone who is. And at some point, we all go through grief. It may be a broken marriage, the death of a spouse or child or parent or friend. We can grieve someone who is still living and we can grieve something, like the death of a business or dream.

Today, let’s start with this entrenched grief myth.

Grief Myth #1: There are 5 stages of grief

The conventional notion that grief has 5 stages was popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 60's. She noted these 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

But this assumes that grief is linear; that we process each stage before moving onto the next; and that we all go through each of the 5 stages.

The truth is that grief is not linear. There’s no ordered procession from one phase to another.

Take denial: most people who grieve go through a long period of foggy disbelief. I had to continually remind myself that Dan wasn’t going to walk through the back door. I white-knuckled the life we’d had and couldn’t imagine what the next chapter even looked like.

But it surprised me that even a year or three after Dan’s death, I’d still reflexively pick up my phone to call him. I wanted to share a funny story about the kids or a good thing that had happened. Each time was another reminder that, oh yeah, he’s gone. That was the old life; this is the new. Moments used to be shared; now they echo in my own heart.

It's also myth that we wholly process one "stage" before moving into another.

Grief is a turbulent mix of emotions - sometimes even conflicting emotions.

We can feel the cavernous pain of missing while also being more filled with the presence of God than we’ve ever known.

We can feel cheated by all we’ll miss out on and yet grateful for everything we’ve had.

We can feel drowned by despair one day and buoyed by hope the next, only to later fight through another trough of despair.

We can feel the heavy cloak of sadness and, without ever taking it off, experience a moment of belly-laughing joy. (Remember this scene from Steel Magnolias?)

No, there are no neat and tidy stages we walk through in grief. It can feel messy even when we're grieving well. And that’s okay.

Finally, it's a myth to assume everyone experiences each stage. I never felt anger after Dan died. Choking loss? Yes. Despair? Oh, yes. Fear? So much. (I don’t see that mentioned in any of the stages.)

I expected to get angry at some point. But it never came.

And I’ve had two friends deeply betrayed in broken marriages who never went through an angry stage.

Are there 5 stages? No.

The truth is that everybody grieves in their own way, at their own pace, with multiple emotions in play at the same time.

Grief is intensely personal. The circumstances that cause loss and the environments after loss vary widely.

And yet, in our grief, God meets each of us so tenderly and so personally. He is all sufficient. He is a good Shepherd, who alone can lead us through the most barren deserts and darkest valleys to places of quiet water and green pasture.

"He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." Isaiah 40:11

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P.S. This post first appeared at Click here to read other posts in the Grief Myths series. 

Grief myth 5 stages of grief | Christian grief | widow