Are There Really Five Stages Of Grieving

Patrick Sheehan is a Clinical Psychologist at RWA Psychology, who provides grief counselling to children, adolescents and adults.

Most people have come across the idea that there are five stages of grief. During a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, this concept is explained to the character of Homer when his doctor informs him of his imminent death. The scene goes like this:

Dr. Julius Hibbert: “Now, a little death anxiety is normal. You can expect to go through five stages. The first is denial.”
Homer Simpson: “No way, because I’m not dying!”
Dr. Julius Hibbert: “Second is anger.”
Homer Simpson: [furiously] “Why you little… !”
Dr. Julius Hibbert: “After that comes fear.”
Homer Simpson: [worried] “What’s after fear? What’s after fear?”
Dr. Julius Hibbert: “Bargaining.”
Homer Simpson: “Doc, you gotta get me outta this. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Dr. Julius Hibbert: “Finally acceptance.”
Homer Simpson: “Well, we all gotta go sometime.”
Dr. Julius Hibbert: “Mr. Simpson, your progress astounds me.”

Believe it or not, The Simpsons is actually working from scientific research. The origins of this 5-stage model is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying, where she noted that the survivors of a loved one’s death could go through any of these five emotional stages.

While this idea is easily understandable and is often referenced in the media, are there newer and more helpful ways of understanding grief?

As an alternative, Margaret Stroebe and Hank Schut have suggested that there are two tasks associated with bereavement:

1) Loss-oriented activities are about making room for the loss. This includes experiencing sadness, crying, yearning, anger, and dwelling on the circumstances of the death.

2) Restoration-oriented activities are associated with changes tied to routine and relationships. These include adapting to a new role, developing new ways of connecting with family and friends, and cultivating a new way of life.

From their research, Stroebe and Schut have noted that a helpful way of approaching grief is to move between these two types of experiences. That is, having the space to experience loss while also making time to manage the practical matters that come with death. Over time, the total amount of time spent on both these experiences will lessen and some type of healing may occur.

The goal is not about coming to a point where we “move on.” Instead, it is more useful to see grief as an ongoing process that moves more to the background over time where one is adjusting to the life changes while still continuing to make space to remember the person in your life.


Patrick Sheehan is a Clinical Psychologist at RWA Psychology. To make an appointment to see Patrick, contact RWA Psychology or call 99801400.

Patrick Sheehan is clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents. He runs training programs at The University of Sydney assisting students to respond effectively to friends in crisis or distress. Call RWA psychology for an appointment with Patrick or one of our other psychologists.

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