Social Sciences

The Five Stages Of Grief Is a Myth

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Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Those are the stages you're supposed to go through when you're grieving. But if you've ever mourned the death of a loved one, you probably noticed that your emotions didn't follow that neat and tidy path. That's because they don't: the idea that there are five stages of grief is a big fat myth.

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How It Got Started

The five stages were conceived by one person: psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first wrote about them in her book On Death and Dying. Though today we (and the psychiatrist herself) turn to the so-called Kübler-Ross model of grief for any form of loss, it was originally meant not for the bereaved facing the death of a loved one, but for terminally ill patients facing the end of their own lives. Of course, she didn't invent these stages out of thin air: she listened to hospital patients talk about their feelings, and conceived of the model from there.

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It's hard to overstate the change this made in the realm of death and dying. What was once the purview of priests and churches became secular and psychological, bringing new importance to the quality of a dying person's last days rather than the fate of their soul. It created a new area of psychology, and turned grief into a "journey" rather than a quiet form of suffering. But it was never scientifically verified. According to Russell P. Friedman, co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, as quoted in Scientific American, "no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist...No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships."

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Why This Myth Went So Far

The human brain loves order. We divide time into months and days and hours, land into countries and cities, and nature into phyla and species. Dividing the grieving process into stages is its own form of comfort; the powerful emotions that come with loss seem more manageable when you have the illusion of predictability.

But there's a dark side to this illusion: what if you don't feel the stages when you're supposed to? This unscientific model runs the risk of imposing unnecessary guilt and pressure on people who are already hurting.

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