The stages of grief misnomer

I recently completed binge watching Cheers on Netflix – all 11 seasons and all 275 episodes. It was as good as I remembered from being a kid. Actually, it was better now that I’m older and get the more subtle jokes. Cheers filled my time in bed alone night after night for several months and reminded me of happier times. But, it also left me with a TV-watching void to fill once it was over. I ended up moving on to Frasier – not quite as good, but Eddie the dog keeps me coming back.

It turns out that Frasier lost his job at the end of season 5, and so the first episode of season 6 was entitled ‘Good Grief’. Early on in the episode, Frasier’s brother Niles (also a therapist) parallels Frasier’s loss of a job to the death of a loved one, and so begins the episode covering Frasier’s journey through the 5 stages of grief.

When there are 5 stages of grief, they are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is also a 7 stage model, which suggests the stages are:

  • Shock & Denial
  • Pain & Guilt
  • Anger & Bargaining
  • Depression / Reflection / Loneliness
  • The Upward Turn
  • Reconstruction & Working Through
  • Acceptance & Hope

While we may not all have been through extreme grief (yet?), we all have likely heard of these stages of grief. The stages of grief are probably the one thing most people have actually heard about regarding grief, because it’s commonly referenced in shows like Frasier and The Simpsons.

Unfortunately, like a lot of culturally shared knowledge, it’s also very misleading.

stage – a point, period, or step in a process or development.

Google Dictionary

The word “stage” implies that these are independent periods in a process, or individual steps in an ordered set of steps. This word has no meaning at all in a process like grief, which is unwieldy, violent, unpredictable, and incredibly random at times. So, if they aren’t stages, what are they? They aren’t phases, as that word also implies a distinct period in a series of events.

The best word I can come up with is simply “feelings”. These are common feelings that people grieving likely will experience. I tend to think that “stages” just had a better ring to it, and that’s the only reason that word was used. I have to admit that “The 5 stages of grief” sounds a lot catchier than “The 5 feelings you’ll likely have at various times during grief.”

It’s entirely possible that some of these feelings may happen sooner than others. For example, it makes sense that acceptance would come after denial. But, it would be entirely wrong to think that once you have experienced acceptance of your loss, that you would never again find yourself in denial – that simply isn’t the case.

Each time I go to a parent/teacher conference alone, and each time I visit my in-laws and stay in their house without my wife, I experience denial – I still can’t believe I am doing these things now without her. Similarly, I can’t say that I’ve experienced a specific anger “stage”, but I know I have been angry at numerous times throughout the last year and a half.

So, I say all this to say, the “stages of grief” is one big misnomer. They are not stages that you go through as illustrated in TV shows. They are not stages that you only experience one at a time, nor is it such that once you complete a stage you will never revisit it again – they are not stages.

I would hate to have this simple idea of how grief works, and try to apply that to how I understand the grieving, or to be rudely surprised to find out it’s not that simple when experiencing significant grief for the first time myself. I do think it’s important to understand these feelings, and understand that the grieving will likely deal with them throughout their grieving process, but let’s stop using the word “stages”, it’s just not that simple – I want you to be happier.

One thought on “The stages of grief misnomer”

  1. Grief, like life, is a series of mountain tops and valleys connected by the paths that we travel up and down. Over and over again. We all want to live on the mountain top where the air is clear, the light is bright and we can see the path forward. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Struggling with the darkness of the valleys is where we learn to appreciate and value the mountain top.
    My heart breaks for you and for all of us who struggle. I pray that we all find peace and hope as we continue the journey. And that we will “Be happier”.

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