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Grieving Mothers, Child Loss, & the Five Stages of Grief

Updated: Jan 26

I wish the world would stop talking about the stages of grief. It drives me crazy. Child loss simply does not work this way. Ask any grieving mother.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross established the five stage of grief in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages including denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance were believed to be the five phases that patients go through after receiving a terminal prognosis. In time, it was applied to everyone experiencing grief and became the accepted model.

Some of you may have lost a child to a terminal illness and may have experienced feelings as outlined in Kubler-Ross's model, but many do not experience their grief as outlined in this theory.

I appreciate the fact that time was spent studying grief and that by creating this theory and book, it has helped open the discussion around grief.

Kubler-Ross began studying grief because there were so few resources available to medical students about death and dying. Goodness knows we need to talk about death, dying, and grief more, but with all the backlash that this theory has received, I am confused why counsellors, therapists, or anyone refers to it at all.

After Katie died, we sought out family counselling. I thought that was what we should do and that we would get the guidance we needed to help us manage the blinding pain and learn how we could best support one another. It was awful to say the least.

When the young therapist pulled out a laminated diagram of the Kulber-Ross model, I nearly lost my mind.

In fact, I was very angry. I said "No. Please do not show me that. Our situation does not fit into that model AT ALL. I learned about that early on in my career and know that was created for patients who have been given a terminal diagnosis." However, she insisted my then 15 year old son needed to hear about it. Insert eye roll here.

Even Wikipedia states 'Although commonly referenced in popular media, the existence of these stages has not been empirically demonstrated and the model is not considered helpful in explaining the grieving process. It is considered to be of historical value but outdated in scientific terms and in a clinical practice.'

Everyone reading this right now knows that grief lasts a lifetime - that it's a constant up and down, loop-de-loop roller coaster ride. Grief never ends; it's not neat and tidy and we don't complete or progress from one phase to the other.

Yes, there are emotions with grief and they include denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance, but there are many other emotions and feelings like guilt, fear, blame, loneliness, jealousy, bitterness, and so many more.

You need not experience all of the emotions laid out in Kubler-Ross's model either. You may not experience denial. I didn't. And I accepted Katie's death early on, not that I liked it, but it was a fact that I couldn't dispute. Katie had died in a car accident and was now in heaven. I accepted.

Kubler-Ross's theory puts unnecessary pressure on those who are grieving and sends the wrong messages to their family and friends. Thanks to this misleading theory, people think that at some point we should be over it. If anyone applies the model to us, it looks like we are doing grief all wrong because REAL grief does not fit into five neat stages.

So, please, if you are a therapist, counsellor, or professional who deals with grief in any way stop using this theory. Instead, talk about the emotions that can accompany grief. Talk about the complicated and confusing way that people often feel and tell them that feeling this way - any way actually - is normal. Talk about the fact that each person who experiences grief and loss is unique and will experience things differently than the next person. These are helpful things to know. Talk about the fact that grief is messy and nearly everyone thinks they are doing it wrong.

Later in life Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stated that she believed grief to be different than she initially thought. She came to realize that grief is not linear, nor is it predictable, and she regretted that her theory misconstrued these realities.

Another psychologist George Bonanno, professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, wrote a book called The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss. In it, he tells readers that there are no stages, but believes the absense of grief or trauma is a healthy outcome. There is no 'end' to grief. We will always carry grief as long as we live.

Perhaps, if you are an academic and truly have a desire to help the bereaved, you might consider doing your own research and formulating a different theory. If you do so, please don't rely on measurements and mathematical formulas. Talk to as many grieving people as you can and let them talk.

Listen with your heart. Better yet, work with the bereaved. Don't study them like lab specimens.

I look forward to a day when there will be more understanding around grief and Dr. Kubler-Ross's theory will become a stepping stone that leads to more compassionate, accurate, and up-to-date theories.

I truly believe in my heart that no ones knows grief like a bereaved mother.

Be easy on yourself and know that no one can tell you how to do your grief.

If you liked this blog, this is another one that may resonate with you Angel Mom: 7 Confessions of a Grieving Mother.

XO Lisa,

Mom of Katie, age 17

PS: I have created a free 5-part video series called "Living with Child Loss". You can learn more about it HERE.