Everything You’ve Been Told About the “Five Stages of Grief” is Wrong
The Kübler-Ross Model is one of the most well-known depictions of how people grieve their dead, but that was never its intended use case. Here’s what was.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You know them, you love them (or not), you’ve heard about them in everything from television shows to health websites. They’ve come under scrutiny in recent years for being an inaccurate depiction of the emotional process of grieving a loved one, which isn’t an unfair criticism, considering that they were never meant to describe that process at all.
According to the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, when Dr. Kübler-Ross wrote the book that would introduce the five-stage model to the world (“On Death and Dying”), she wrote it as a reflection upon the emotional processes one goes through when navigating a terminal illness. The stages were never meant to be viewed as linear, never meant to be viewed as mutually exclusive of one another, and never meant to be applied to the loved ones of the terminally ill individual; the book is not a clinical study, it is not a manual, it was intended to be a platform for “privileging the voice of the dying”.
Privileging the voice of the dying was a major theme in Dr. Kübler-Ross’ work. When she was a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado in 1962, she famously brought a 16 year old patient with leukemia into a lecture and asked the medical students present to interview her. After question after question about her medical treatment, the girl turned the tables on the students and began angrily questioning them instead, asking them why nobody wanted to know what her life was like; what it was like for her to never be able to dream of growing up.
Dr. Kübler-Ross brought up many conversations that people weren’t ready to have, and that people still are not ready to have in our death-denying culture. What happened to the Five Stages of Grief model is a massive example of that; the narrative was quite literally seized from the dying and placed with those surrounding them. It took away something attempting to give dignity and humanity to the terminally ill and, once again, made them objects; so much so that it rendered the model itself useless, because the model does not work in the context of grieving others.
Disabled people are constantly facing objectification. Consider how many books you’ve seen from the perspective of family members of autistic people vs. autistic people themselves; how many headlines you’ve seen written about “loving someone with a mental illness”. Even physically, wheelchair users risk being pushed by random “helpful” strangers so frequently that a disability advocate made spiked handle-covers for her chair to prevent the issue.
The way we treat our dying is an ultimate expression of this objectification, and it’s beyond disturbing. If I can ask one thing of you after reading this article, it’s this: the next time you hear someone mention the Five Stages of Grief, set the record straight. Word of mouth mangled this narrative, and that’s the only way it can possibly fix it. It’s time for us to acknowledge death instead of merely those around it, and to privilege the voice of the dying.