A bandage of time on a broken heart

Grief Myths

Various models attempt to describe what happens during mourning. Many describe mourning as a series of stages or phases. The most well known is an adaptation of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coping with dying. She originally proposed that dying people go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (sometimes abbreviated as DABDA). Some writers erroneously took those same stages and proclaimed that they applied to mourning, even though that was not Dr. Kübler-Ross’ intention. Since then various other stage and phase models have arisen from such theorists as Collin Murray Parkes with his four phases of mourning to Granger Westberg and his ten stages. These stage/phase-based approaches to explaining what happens during mourning are prevalent in the popular press, but they have significant shortcomings:


There is no basis for believing that any particular stage/phase-based description applies to all people.

These models have been based on observations of a few selected people. However, just because they might apply to a few people, doesn’t necessarily mean they can be generalized to apply to everyone.


Stages and phases imply that mourning is a passive activity.

Stages and phases imply that mourning is a passive activity – similar to a two-year old going through the “terrible two’s” phase of growing up. There’s nothing I can do but be a victim and wait until it’s all over. An analogy is a car at a car wash. The car passively sits there while it goes through the floor-vacuuming phase, the windshield-washing phase, the tire-washing phase, etc. until it reaches the drying-off stage. It’s now clean and shiny and ready to be driven off. Grieving and mourning are not as series of stages, each waiting for the previous one to finish, with the bereaved coming out “clean and shining.” Grieving and mourning are hard, active work. The bereaved are not passive victims without any choices regarding what happens to them; their lives become full of choices on how they will proceed through their grieving and mourning.


Stage/phase-based descriptions of grieving set expectations of what grieving is supposed to be like.

Stage and phase-based descriptions of grieving and mourning create formulas with predetermined standards that don’t recognize the uniqueness of each death. Some people then get caught up in comparing themselves to those standards. They think something is wrong with them because they aren’t falling in line with where the books said they should be. There is nothing wrong with these people, they are just comparing themselves to an artificial checklist of what someone else thought they should be experiencing. Even Elisabeth Kübler-Ross realized later in life that her five stages of dying were not always exact – people could go from one stage to another and back to a previous stage or skip one stage altogether.


Generally, people who rely on a stage/phase-based description of grieving can experience more stress than is necessary in an otherwise already stressful time. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor, take the time to spread the word: grief is different for everyone, and that’s okay.