The Five Stages of Grief

When it comes to grief and loss most of us are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and accepting. We can identify with the majority of these stages, but what many don’t know is that Kubler-Ross originally created these for terminally-ill individuals and they were later applied to others who were grieving. Perhaps these origins are why the 5 stages aren’t a perfect fit for everyone. Or perhaps simply because being human means being unique.

Grief is Unique

The struggle that some have with her theory is that their grief does not follow the 5 stages in order. Grief and bereavement for each of us tend to follow their own unique path. No two individuals will grieve the same. Grief does not fall into an easy-to-follow pattern that you can track. This is why it is rare for someone’s grief journey to follow the 5 stages exactly in order.

The Four Tasks of Mourning

While working in grief the past four years, I discovered a different way to conceptualize the process. I have found using William Worden’s 4 Tasks of Mourning to be more helpful in describing the process. Worden’s tasks do not have to be followed through in a linear pattern, and tasks can be revisited multiple times.

Task One

The first task is to accept the reality of the death. Many who have someone die, feel like they enter a fog. By working through this task, an individual learns to accept that their person has died and will not be coming back physically. Like with all the tasks, this is not a simple process and takes time. I have seen it take from months to years. Most of those working through this task will say things like, “I can’t believe they are gone.” Try not to put a timeline on grief.

Task Two

The second task is to work through the pain of grief. Simply put, this is the process of working through all the feelings that accompanies the death of a loved one: the sadness, relief, despair, loneliness, anger, etc. This is often the point at which an individual chooses to seek counseling services. Grief emotions are hard whether or not the death was expected. Working through these emotions is crucial to moving through the grief process.

Task Three

The third task is adjusting to the environment where the deceased is missing. This task is unique to each of us as well. It is not just about physically adjusting to the person no longer there. It includes emotional and spiritual adjustment too. This is also the point at which the bereaved realize responsibilities that the deceased had and now they must take on. A good example is when a parent becomes a single parent and now carries all the roles and responsibilities for both. This can not only be exhausting, but can bring up some of those emotions from task two.

Task Four

Task four is to find an enduring connection with the deceased while continuing your life. This is a tricky task. Some can find this connection through balloon releases or a memorial, while others do not necessarily want to find an enduring connection. This task, along with all of the tasks, is unique to each individual and should never be forced.

Finding Peace

Using this model, it is easier for some to find more peace with their grief and loss. They don’t feel the pressure of having to feel all 5 stages of grief, but can feel what they need to and work through grief at their own pace. I know I’ve mentioned it multiple times, but will stress it again; everyone’s grief journey is different. Sometimes you will find yourself revisiting the grieving process, and “re-grieving” more than once. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is hard and complicated, but can be worked through with time and support. Don’t hesitate to find your support.

Rachel Saenz, M.S., NCC, LPC