Grief Doesn’t Come in Stages

I was recently asked by a researcher about how to help people who are still in deep grief a year or even ten years after a loss. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback.  As a therapist, and especially a therapist who specializes in grief and loss, I find the concept of bereavement lasting more than eighteen months at the outside a bit hard to fathom.  As we talked more, she described what she saw as “grief” or “bereavement.” That’s when I had my “ah-hah” moment. We weren’t speaking the same language. In therapist-speak, I reframed her thoughts and tried again.


First, she was asking about how to reach acceptance in the five stages of grief. The five stages of grief from Kubler-Ross are marvelous for those who are dying. She created that model for anticipatory grief, not for those left behind. It works well to help dying patients prepare for their goodbyes and death because it facilitates discussions that need to happen. Dying people can and do need to reach the point where they can accept that their illness is terminal and that they need to say what needs to be said before they are gone. I have used that model as a hospice social worker more times than I can count, and it truly does frame the needs of the dying person for the family.

 That being said, I never ever use "acceptance" in my work with grieving people. I work toward recovery, completing unfinished business, and integration of the loved one in a new life. The sense of loss never really ends, but it doesn't have to hurt so much when the regrets are resolved. The intensity diminishes. My model for grief is a "U" with all the emotions of humanity around it, and lines running every which way. I prepare my clients for moments that sneak up and burst onto the scene like a wave you were not expecting. It happens even years later.

That's missing, not grieving. And that's normal


Society tends to view grief as a short period of funerals and ceremonies, and then when it's all over the person with the loss is left to figure it out, and face questions like "but it's been a month- aren't you feeling better yet?" People are uncomfortable when the loved one's name comes up, and many times try to avoid it. Every grieving person loses some friends who simply can't be around someone who has had a death.  It’s simply not in their toolkit to cope with death. Eventually, all of us have to, but some will avoid it if at all possible, even at the cost of a friendship. That’s another loss of the bereaved survivor.


At the same time, society has beliefs about how grieving people "should" act. Widows and widowers are “supposed” to be sedated, sad, and alone for at least a year. They are told not to change anything for a year. I have never found out who the "they" is who made up those rules. I encourage my clients to break them. Parents who lose children are expected to have another child to replace the lost one or be grateful that they have other kids to not feel their loss as much. Even a pet's death means we are supposed to run out and adopt a new furbaby. Those beliefs truly get in the way of a person grieving the way they need to. It's their loss. They get to choose. Unfortunately, friends and family have gotten the memo from "they" and do not want rules broken. It makes it more difficult than it has to be for the primary griever.  So.....Go Break Some Rules


If you need more help with grief and loss I have created an online year-long grief program; called Your Path Through Grief. You can find more information on this program at