Within the past two years, I’ve seen two friends die. Stage four cancer currently affects another friend, as well as my mom who is in hospice care.
People supposedly go through five stages of coping with impending death, according to the famous 1969 book “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In it, the author stated that people go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Going from my own experience, I don’t feel that’s true.
The biggest myth about the stages of grief is that they deal with how people handle the death of others. Kubler-Ross’s book originally spoke to the experience of facing your own impending death, not the death of a loved one.
It’s naive to say that the emotional state of a person affected by grief can be separated into distinct stages of behavior. After my friend’s suicide two years ago, I felt a combination of anger, depression and acceptance. I didn’t separate the emotions into stages, they were all an integral part of how I felt.
Camille Wortman, professor of social and health psychology at Duke University, wrote in an article for PBS that the stages of grief are not backed with scientific evidence.
“It turns out there is considerable variability in the kinds of emotions we experience after a loss – and the order in which we experience them,” Wortman wrote. “Stage models do not help us to understand why some people are devastated by a loss, while others emerge unscathed, or even strengthened.”
I still remember my first trip to visit my mom at her nursing home. I was greeted at the door by an elderly man in a wheelchair who shouted, “Welcome to Never-never Land!” Part of me wanted to smile, the other part wanted to break down.
There, surrounded by other elderly patients, was my mom sitting in a wheelchair. The cancer has spread to her spine and brain, making simple tasks such as walking nearly impossible without help. The overwhelming feelings I had were failure and disappointment.
My siblings and I tried to keep her out of a nursing home as long as we could. We had hired a nurse to visit her three times a week. We installed handle bars and grips to the walls of her home so she could get around easier. We took time off of work and school in order to take care of her.
All the while, we knew we couldn’t keep it up. We knew we couldn’t continually support the independence of the woman who singlehandedly raised four kids on her own. Maybe it was a bit of both acceptance and denial.
No one can really know how grief affects someone until it happens. Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn created some of his best artwork of his wife Saskia on her deathbed when she had fallen ill. Musician and singer Eric Clapton wrote the Grammy award-winning song “Tears in Heaven” about the loss and grief involved in the accidental death of his 4-year-old son.
In the book “The Grief Recovery,” authors Russell P. Friedman and John W. James, write about the uncertainty of how death can affect a person.
“Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss,” Friedman wrote. “No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotion of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”
The problem with use of the five stages of grief is the associated help that came with it. According to an article in The Observer by psychologist Vaughan Bell, medical professionals have used the stages to treat patients.
“Not being able to ‘work through’ a stage was considered a sign of psychological difficulty and therapists were encouraged to help people pass through each of the ‘phases,'” Bell wrote.
I’m in favor of psychology, even if I only have a rudimentary understanding of it. What I’m not in favor of is supporting theories that can’t be backed by the scientific method. So let’s move on from the fallacy and recognize that the human experience is much more complex than a list of stages.
Jon Parton is a junior in mass communications.