The five stages of grief theory is not a recipe for overcoming grief

Almost everyone knows this theory according to which during mourning, we go through a certain number of stages. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the deaths it has caused, mourning has struck many people. But do we really all mourn in the same way? An article from the BBC is trying to answer this question.

It was the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who developed this theory of the five stages of mourning. When she arrived in the United States in 1958, she was shocked by the way hospitals treated dying patients. “Everything was very depersonalized, very technical”, she told the BBC in a 1983 interview.

In 1969, she published a book called On Death and Dying [Sur la fin de vie et la mort]. It begins by describing patients’ perceptions of death and how palliative care can be improved.

But what has mainly remained in the collective imagination is the idea that when a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he goes through a series of emotional stages: denial, anger, negotiation, depression and finally acceptance.

Five steps but not only

However, there have never been only five stages. While each of them has a dedicated chapter, a graphic in the book describes ten or even thirteen stages such as shock, preparatory mourning or even hope.

Ken Ross, son of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, recalls that “The five steps are meant to be a loose frame, not a recipe for overcoming grief.” If people wanted to use different theories or different models, she didn’t care. She just wanted to start the conversation. ”

On Death and Dying has become a best seller. The five stages have taken off. They have been used to train doctors and therapists, passed on to patients and their families.

They also apply to all of us during the coronavirus pandemic, says bereavement expert David Kessler. He worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and co-wrote his latest book, On Grief and Grieving [Sur le chagrin et le deuil].

“There was a lot of denial at the start of the pandemic, anger then about health restrictions and then there was negotiation:” If I respect the physical distances, everything will be better “. This is followed by sadness over the duration of this crisis. And finally there was acceptance: “I can wash my hands. I can learn to work virtually ”.”

Mourning is difficult to control and frightening, the idea that there is a road map is soothing, even if it is an illusion. In her last book, the psychiatrist reminded that her theory of stages was not “Intended to put disordered emotions in pre-defined frameworks”.

Mourning is different for everyone, even if there are sometimes similarities, everyone has to fight their own way.