Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Grieve As You Must, and Break Free of Believing in the “Steps”

Too many therapists and their patients have been led to believe there’s a formula for grieving and that everyone must process the five steps—nonsense.

There are times when we must open up and share our experiences, especially around grieving, and this is one of them for me.

Years ago, just after my mother had died in hospice care for her metastatic cancer, a nurse from the unit at the hospital called me. She inquired about my well-being and then expressed shock, annoyance, and a hint of shame (for me) that I hadn’t started going through the traditional—and completely incorrect—stages of grieving. The nurse was, in fact, lecturing me as though I were a child, which was quite a long time ago. It was disrespectful.

I was not only taken aback, I was angry. Here I was, totally wrecked after my mother died after months of our caring for her at home, and she was lecturing me on how I was doing it all wrong. I will never forget that phone call and cutting her off. After that, I never responded to the few calls that came from the hospice unit in the hospital. I’d had enough shaming from her. The point here, and one I want to make for anyone who is grieving, is that there is no formula for grieving, and any health professional who adheres to it has been misled.

Grieving is an unavoidable aspect of being human. When a loved one passes away, a relationship ends, or you lose your job, it is a process that happens after a loss. Many individuals think that in order to grieve and heal, there are specific actions that must be taken. I and others, however, refute the idea of a predetermined series of stages and exhort readers to abandon this thinking. I’d like to present a different viewpoint on sorrow and inspire people to accept their individual path to recovery.

As Kubler-Ross explained her unscientific method of devising these alleged stages of grief, she explained it this way. “I was to do the interview while they [her students] stood around the bed watching and observing. We would then retire to my office and discuss our own reactions and the patient’s response. We believed that by doing many interviews like this we would get a feeling for the terminally ill and their needs which in turn we were ready to gratify if possible.”

The idea of stages of grief, or as Kubler-Ross later called it, stages of loss, relates to her own grief surrounding the death of her father and her anger related to it. It’s an unrecognized bias on her part. Also, the stages were based on interviews with dying patients, not individuals who were experiencing loss. And grief or bereavement waxes and wanes over periods of time and is not necessarily a progression to acceptance.

But scientists have an affinity for putting quantifiable numbers on research. It has happened with most research in the early 20th century when psychology was attempting to wrest validity from the “hard” sciences since it was seen as a “soft” oneCritical reviews have not agreed with Kubler-Ross and have found it may not be in such favor among healthcare professionals today.

Grief is a highly individualized experience. Each person’s experience of sorrow is unique and influenced by their personality, life experiences, and the particulars of the loss. Realizing that there is no one-size-fits-all method of grieving is crucial. Following an exact set of instructions can be restrictive and may not be consistent with everyone’s experiences. It is essential to respect and validate your own feelings instead, and to let yourself grieve in a way that is true for you.

And grieving is difficult. A wide range of feelings, from sadness and rage to confusion and remorse, describe it. It doesn’t follow a straight line with a definite start, middle, and end. With the ebb and flow of deep emotions, grief can be unpredictable. You can give yourself permission to experience all the feelings that come up without condemnation or expectation by accepting the messy nature of grieving. Grieving can be done in any way, right or wrong.

The idea of going through a sequence of steps suggests a straight path to recovery. But sadness doesn’t progress in a straight line. It is more like a jumbled web of feelings and encounters. The notion that one must go through particular phases or steps oversimplifies the complexity of grieving. It is crucial to recognize that healing is a journey rather than a destination.

Belief in “steps” can lead to the bereaved person having irrational expectations. If you don’t follow the set timeline or experience emotions out of the intended order, it may result in feelings of inadequacy or failure. You can release yourself from these expectations and allow your grieving journey to develop spontaneously and authentically by letting go of the belief in steps.

Lift the curtain of awareness and look at how the idea of these steps for grieving came to be. For one, it is based on extremely limited and flawed research by Dr. Kubler-Ross and her students, who studied a very limited number of grieving people and then put their own beliefs on what they felt was happening. What type of research is this? It’s not research, but self-reflection that is highly biased and, arguably, lacks any type of research acumen. But, because of the highly respected psychiatrist, the idea of the steps took hold and quickly became the standard for how grief develops over time after a loss.

There is no one solution that works for everyone because grieving is such a personal emotion. While some people might feel more comfortable going through a given process, it’s crucial to understand that these procedures aren’t applicable to everyone. It’s important to respect your specific journey through grief because it’s complicated and personal.

The type of loss experienced, the person’s support network, and their coping mechanisms all play a role in how long the mourning process lasts from person to person. It’s crucial to give the time and room required for healing.

Getting professional assistance, such as therapy or counseling, can be helpful when grieving. A qualified expert can offer assistance, direction, and resources to help people through the difficult feelings and difficulties that come with grieving.

Talking to a close friend or trusted relative, exercising, using relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation, writing, or joining a support group are all good ways to deal with loss.

Even after a long period of time has passed since the loss, grief might reappear. Anger-inducing occasions such as anniversaries, holidays, or triggering incidents might do this. Sorrow is not something that has fully passed or been dealt with. Integrating the loss into one’s life may take a lifetime. For some, there will always be the element of grief for a loss, and that simply means the love was strong.

Grieving is a difficult journey that cannot be broken down into a series of actions or phases. And there is no shame in not grieving according to any formula for it. As one research paper noted, “If there are no typical responses to loss and no typical losses, and not everyone goes through them or in order, how can there possibly be stages that universally represent people’s reactions to loss? The fact is, no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages.”

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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