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Who are the Grief Police and how can you resist arrest?

Little-known fact: The Five Stages of grief are the source of almost-fifty years worth of conventional wisdom about grief. But they were meant to describe the end-of-life experience of people with life-threatening illness, not the experience of mourners who have lost a loved one. Not until a later, curious, and convenient but not scientifically vetted melding of the two experiences took place, that is.

The stages idea came from a series of interviews performed by the now-iconic physician Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. They came as a pretty seat-of-the-pants summary of what she’d heard from these patients, and were not presented for peer-review as would be expected for a major new entry into the understanding of grief. By now, the five stages have crept into the cultural consciousness nonetheless, and just won’t let go.

I know because I’ve been trying to shake them loose for years, first from myself and then from my clients. Just to be clear, Kubler-Ross deserves our respect. She was a pioneer and a bold questioner of the reluctance that physicians of the time had to even discuss end of life with their patients. She did much good, but these five stages have gone unquestioned for too long.

A quick refresher: The Five Stages are said to be Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Another little-known fact: There are far better ideas available that come from two excellent sources – first, researchers who spend years learning the ins and outs of grieving through careful peer-reviewed studies. And second, therapists who work with the lived experience of their clients.

A not-too-surprising fact: I don’t believe that the five stages are much help at all, based on my decades of work with grieving clients. They have spawned what I call the Grief Police, who patrol among grieving people to question them about what stage they are in, whether they’ve become Angry yet, whether they are out of Denial, whether they have reached Acceptance.

Some of the better ideas: people die, but relationships live on; finishing unfinished business; creating a unique way to grieve that fits with the individual’s own beliefs and nature rather than a one-size-fits-all model; resilience-based grieving, and more.

With such rich ideas to explore, I’d prefer for people who grieve to have the freedom to leave behind the stages-of-grief framework that dictates terms of grieving properly. I’d prefer for people to resist arrest by the Grief Police.

What to say if the Grief Police approach you: It’s actually a myth that everybody grieves alike. So I’m not destined to go through stages that some other people do, so don’t start taking bets on when I’ll go into my Angry stage. And no, I am not done grieving. It’s only been 6 months – and it will take the time it takes. But thanks for your concern.

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