Grief: States not Stages

It has been said that grief from the death of a loved one is very individualized and personal. If it hasn’t been said then I just said it! While it is true that grief is individualized there is enough similarity in everyone’s grief to be able to understand most grief journeys. I said able, not easy.

My own grief journey over my wife Carrie’s death during the last 15 months has been very personal and has had times of doing well and moments of not doing well. I have found comfort in the knowledge that this is normal.

So what makes the process so difficult to understand? I suspect that part of the difficulty may be attributed to confusion over the whole process. Several decades ago a researcher put forth a theory, the Küber-Ross Model, on the grief process which included the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The model was widely accepted but the descriptor “stages” gave the unintended notion that grief was an orderly, sequential process. Today, research has given only modest support to the Küber-Ross theory and other theories have suggested additional states, e.g., sadness, yearning, crying, joy, contentment, laughter. Still others have suggested distinctions between grief, as an inward process, and mourning, as an outward expression of grief. I might add a couple of unscientific states such as “foggy brain” and “staring off into space”.

Research efforts have helped us understand many aspects of grief; perhaps chiefly, that grief has states and not stages. In addition, it is now widely acknowledged that there is no order to the experience of the states. It is normal for someone grieving to visit a state many times, bounce between several, or skip right to acceptance. Skipping to acceptance or moving through the grief process quickly seems to unnecessarily raise red flags. It was once believed that those who didn’t experience “all” of the grief process would at a later date experience great emotional difficulty. Research strongly suggests that this is far from the truth, as those who pass through grief quickly show as much integration of the loss into his or her life as those who pass through slowly. Again, this phenomenon points out that grief is very much an individualized process. As it was just noted an individual’s grief can be short or long but it seems the average span is about eighteen months with “grief bursts”—momentary moments of sorrow—typically occurring throughout the remainder of the grieving person’s lifetime. The experience of a grief burst does not indicate an unfinished grief processes; it is simply part of life.

There are other influences on an individual’s grief including such factors as the proximity of the one who was lost, the quality of the relationship, if the death was sudden or expected, and religious beliefs. Proximity is a factor which seems to relate to physical distance. The death of a loved one who lives across town is often more grievous than one across country. This may reflect the amount of time spent with someone and is not a sign of having less love for or a poorer relationship with the person who died. In simple terms, relationship quality refers to the closeness of the relationship. A sense of closeness comes from a combination of intellectual, social, recreational, emotional, and, for married couples, physical intimacy. The quality of closeness is a product of how deep the intimacy in each area. Relationship quality appears to impact grief significantly. The higher the quality or the more intimate the relationship the shorter and easier the grief process. This concept is counter-intuitive. It seems the greatest difficulty someone has with grief is when a lot of “unfinished business” is left undone in the relationship when a death occurs. Unfinished business might include thoughts of “I’ll show my wife I love her more when…” or “I’ll spend more time with my kids, parents, siblings when…” or, even, “I’ll make up for _________ later”. A sudden death or an expected death may make the grief process different. At the very least a sudden death adds “shock and disbelief” to the grieving process. An expected death may still have the same intensity of grief for most but often a lot of the grieving process takes place prior to the death and may shorten the after death process. A caution should be noted here that Anticipatory Grief—grief prior to an expected death—is different and for some it does not change the after death grief experience. Religious beliefs can have a powerful effect on the grief process—especially for those who follow Christ. The Christian Scriptures point out that Christians do not grieve as others grieve, as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). A person’s view of life after death plays a role in the process. The Biblical truth of a resurrection offers hope and hope brings comfort to the grieving. Although I have touched on grief in earlier posts:

I intend to write more about the Christian’s view of grief and how faith alters the grief process.

Gaining a better understanding of grief will be helpful as each of us who are called upon to be burden bearers with those experiencing grief as well as when our turn comes to take our own journey. I have written elsewhere in this blog about other aspects of grief and factors that affect the grief process. I pray that these insights will be helpful.

Note: This post has been expanded from a recent article in the Cedar Street Soundings.

3 thoughts on “Grief: States not Stages

  1. You’re right about their not being stages, only states. Grief is like a slowly diminishing spiral where you visit the same states over and over again. Grief over the loss of a spouse can also very physical and visceral, adding additional states to an already agonizing and traumatic condition. I got kicked out of my grief support group for telling a newly bereft woman that very thing when the moderator (who had never undergone such grief) kept insisting that the five stages of grief were how we grieved.

    1. Sorry to hear that you were not allowed to be part of the group. Often people learn something once and do not continue to review the concept as new research sheds new light on old ideas. I have the same concerns about a local place that purports helping grieving children, an admirable calling. However, after I reviewed their literature and curriculum I felt they were too tied to the rigid stages which can do more harm than good. I’m currently researching childhood grieving involving parental loss. In time I’ll post some information about this topic including signs, resiliency factors, and outcomes. So far it is fascinating stuff–although it hits right in the middle of my home life.

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