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Understanding Bereavement

Sad Older Woman

Understanding Bereavement

How are we to understand bereavement?

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to explain it. Perhaps the most influential and well-known theory has been that of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” focused on an emotional transition through five stages, beginning with denial and progressing through angerbargaining and depression before arriving at acceptance. The “stage theory,” as it came to be known, quickly created a paradigm for how people die in our western culture, and eventually a prototype of how we should grieve.

The trouble is that stage theories of grief that make loss sound so controllable turns out largely to be fiction. Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, more recent research suggests that grief and mourning rarely if ever follow such a checklist; the process of grief is often complicated, untidy and unpredictable, more of a process than a progression, and one that sometimes never fully ends.

Even Dr. Kübler-Ross herself, towards the end of her life, recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In her book “On Grief and Grieving” (1995) she insisted that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because that very messiness of grief is what makes us all so uncomfortable.

The implied suggestion of many traditional grief models seems to be that the person suffering a loss simply has to go through the inevitable process, wait it out, “see it through,” on the assumption that “time heals all wounds,” and that eventually “in time,” they will “get over it.” This would seem to suggest that in the emotional aftermath of a loss, bereaved individuals are essentially passive, having to simply submit to suffering through a series of stages or a certain structured grief system over a defined period of time and incidentally over which they have little or no control and in which there is not much choice. 

But this is not what people actually experience after bereavement. We cannot understand the grief process ONLY by some “timeline” system or “set formula” whereby a person goes passively through certain emotions, stages, phases or reactions in order to somehow eventually arrive at this destination we erroneously call acceptance.

So, consider this foundational fact: 

We cannot understand bereavement and every individual respons