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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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Stages of Grief: Are There Actual Stages Of Grief?

Is there any truth behind the idea that grief and loss recovery comes in stages?

We are often asked if there are actual stages of grief or grieving. The answer is NO! There are no stages of grief or grieving. Even though you may hear or read that there are such stages, there is no predictable progression of feelings and thoughts that applies to any one person, much less to a group of people.

Every relationship is unique. Therefore the feelings you have when someone important to you dies are also unique. Any attempt to quantify your emotional reaction to the death of someone important to you may keep you from taking the actions that will help you deal with your unique reaction to the death of that person.

Why Do People Think There Are Stages? Many years ago Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book entitled On Death and Dying. The book identified five stages that a dying person might go through after being told they had a terminal illness. Those stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For many years, in the absence of more accurate information, well-meaning people incorrectly assigned the stages about dying people to the grief people feel when someone important to them dies.

It is fair to say that following a death, grievers may feel sad, and they might have some anger about the circumstances or cause of the death, or even about things that did or did not happen in their relationship with the person who died. But those are feelings, they are not stages. They are normal and natural emotional reactions to a death. They don’t happen in any predetermined order if they occur at all. If we start with an incorrect premise, we will wind up far away from the truth. The idea that stages of grief even exist is dangerous.

After all, a griever is often in a very suggestible condition; dazed, numb, walking in emotional quicksand. Many grievers are told that they are in denial. Yet in all of our years of experience, working with tens of thousands of grievers, we have never met anyone in denial that a loss had occurred. They say, "Since my mom died, I have had a hard time." There is no denial in that comment. There is a very clear acknowledgment that there has been a death, and that there has been an emotional impact.

What about anger? Often when a death has occurred there is no anger at all, as this story explains: “I had a wonderful relationship with my grandmother. At age 92, she got ill and died. Blessedly, it happened quickly, so she did not suffer very much. I’m pleased about that. I had just spent some time with her, sharing memories and saying how much we cared about each other. I’m very happy about that. The funeral ceremony created a truly accurate memory picture of her, and people came and talked about her. I loved that. A friend reminded me to say any last things to her and then say goodbye, and I did, and I'm glad. I think of her often with fondness and sometimes with a tear in my eye and I cherish those feelings. I am aware of the wonderful memories of my relationship with the incredible woman who was my grandma, and I miss her. And, I am not angry.”

Unresolved Grief Is About Undelivered Communications Unresolved grief is about undelivered communications of an emotional nature. It is about the things we wish we had said or done differently, better or more; and it’s about the unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations about the future. It can also be about the things we wish the other person had said or done, or even had not said or done.

The discovery of those undelivered communications or actions that were never taken is not an orderly process that can ever be quantified and applied to groups of people. Nor does each person attach the same emotions to the awareness of those unspoken things or untaken actions.

The fact is that there are a whole host of feelings that may be attached to those unsaid things. Happiness, sadness, love, fear, anger, relief, compassion, are just some of the feelings that a griever might experience. We do not need to categorize, analyze, or explain those feelings. We do need to learn how to communicate them and then say goodbye to the physical relationship that has been ended by the death.

It is most important to understand that there are no absolutes. There are no definitive stages or time zones for grieving. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. Grief is emotional, not intellectual. Rather than defining stages of grief which could easily confuse a griever, we prefer to help each griever find their own truthful expression of the thoughts and feelings that may be keeping them from participating in their own lives. We all bring different and varying beliefs to the losses that occur in our lives, therefore we will each perceive and feel differently about each loss.

Please don’t let anyone label your feelings as stages.

Note: In a most interesting statement in the introduction to her book, Question & Answers on Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross states: “I have specifically excluded chapters on ‘Religion and Life after Death’ as well as chapters on ‘Bereavement and Grief.’ This was done not only because of lack of space, but because there are others who are more qualified to answer those questions.”

For an even more in-depth look at the idea of “stages,” please access and read this article of ours which was published in 2008: http://budurl.com/NOStagesofGrief.

© 2018 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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    April 2017
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    Princeton, NJ - April 7-10, 2017
    Reading, Berkshire, England - April 21-24, '17
    Denver, CO - April 21-24, 2017
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    May 2017
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    Dallas, TX - May 5-8, 2017
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    Torquay, Devon, England - May 19-22, '17
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