What if My Grief Doesn’t Fit into Five Stages? 5 Tips for Finding Meaning after Loss

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If you’ve ever read a self-help book or article about loss, you probably heard something about the five stages of grief.

. . . there is no one correct way to grieve and no universal prescription for how the process “should” unfold.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

These stages were popularized by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and depict grief reactions as occurring in a series of predictable stages moving from denial, anger, yearning, and depression to acceptance.

Despite the popularity of thinking about grief in stages, research has generally failed to find much support for this way of thinking about loss. For instance, in one study, a colleague and I surveyed more than 600 bereaved adults, searching for evidence of a stage model of grief.

What we found was that grief reactions rarely proceeded in an organized series of stages. But, the variations in grieving that we observed were hardly random.

On the contrary, we found that the grief reactions of these individuals could largely be explained by looking at the subjective meanings they had made of their experience.

Those who had found some benign meaning in the event (e.g., coming to understand it in religious/spiritual terms or as an opportunity for personal growth) were far less likely to exhibit complications in the grieving process, compared to those who were having difficulty making sense of what happened. So, if you have lost someone in your life, you might be wondering, what does any of this have to do with me? For me, the takeaway is that there is no one correct way to grieve and no universal prescription for how the process “should” unfold.

It also seems that after a loss many are searching for some significance or meaning in the experience. Why did it happen? What implications does it have for my life? And how do I now make sense of a future that no longer includes the person I lost?

These are not easy questions, and no one can answer them for you. However, if you have lost someone in your life and are motivated to pursue these kinds of questions further, try out our Making Meaning of Loss in 5 Days exercises, which includes five assignments that may be completed each day of the week (or at your own pace).

EXCLUSIVE EXERCISE: Making Meaning of Loss in 5 Days

 

Further Reading:

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I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Death of a Loved One Brook Noel, Pamela D Blair PH.D. and Brand: Champion Press (WI)
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Sources:

Field, N. P., & Filanosky, C. (2009). Continuing bonds, risk factors for complicated grief, and adjustment to bereavement. Death Studies, 34, 1-29.

Holland, J. M., & Neimeyer, R. A. (2010). An examination of stage theory of grief among individuals bereaved by natural and violent causes: A meaning-oriented contribution. OMEGA, 61, 103-120.

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lichtenthal, W. G., & Cruess, D. G. (2010). Effects of directed written disclosure on grief and distress symptoms among bereaved individuals. Death Studies, 34, 475-499.

Neimeyer, R. A., Baldwin, S. A., & Gillies, J. (2006). Continuing bonds and reconstructing meaning: Mitigating complications in bereavement. Death Studies, 30, 715-738.

Neimeyer, R. A., & Levitt, H. M. (2000). What’s narrative got to do with it? Construction and coherence in accounts of loss. J. H. Harvey & E.D. Miller (Eds.), Loss and trauma: General and close relationship perspectives (pp. 401-412). New York: Routledge.

Shakespeare-Finch, J., & Lurie-Beck, J. (2014). A meta-analytic clarification of the relationship between posttraumatic growth and symptoms of posttraumatic distress disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28, 223-229.

 

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