Are the Five Stages of Grief Real? 

21 Dec 2023

The concept of the five stages of grief, introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” has been a significant reference point in understanding how people deal with loss. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, the question arises. Are these stages real, and do they have a scientific basis? 

The five stages of grief 

  1. Denial. This initial stage involves shock or denial, where individuals struggle to accept the reality of the loss. 
  2. Anger. As the reality sets in, feelings of frustration and anger emerge, often directed at objects, other people, or the situation itself. 
  3. Bargaining. In this stage, individuals attempt to negotiate or bargain, often with a higher power, in a bid to reverse or lessen the loss. 
  4. Depression. This stage is marked by a deep sense of sorrow as individuals grapple with the emotional impact of their loss. 
  5. Acceptance. The final stage is acceptance, where individuals come to terms with the loss and begin to move forward. 

Scientific basis and criticism 

While Kübler-Ross’s model has been influential in grief counselling and popular culture, its scientific basis has been the subject of debate and criticism.  

Lack of a linear process 

One of the main criticisms of the model is that it suggests a linear progression through the stages, which is not always the case in real life. Grief is highly individualistic, and people can experience these stages in different orders, or some may not experience certain stages at all. 

Generalisation issues 

The model was initially based on studies of patients facing their own deaths rather than a wide range of bereavement situations. Thus, it may not fully capture the complexities and variations in how different individuals experience grief. 

Empirical research 

Empirical research on the five stages has been mixed. Some studies have found evidence supporting aspects of the model, while others have not found a clear sequence of stages in the grieving process. 

Evolving perspectives 

The field of psychology has evolved to view grief more as a spectrum of experiences rather than a series of stages. Modern grief counselling focuses more on understanding individual experiences and coping mechanisms rather than fitting individuals into a specific model. 

Each person’s journey is unique 

While the five stages of grief have provided a framework for understanding bereavement, it’s important to recognise that grief is a complex and deeply personal process. The model serves more as a guideline than a strict progression, highlighting common experiences in grief. However, each person’s journey through loss is unique, and contemporary approaches to grief counselling emphasise personalised support that respects individual differences in grieving. The five stages model remains a useful tool, but it is one of many in the broader understanding of how we cope with loss.