The Contemporary relevance of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 Stages of Grief

The late Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) identified a useful model that gives an overview of the process of grieving in general. The model is known as the 5 Stages of Grief. The Covid 19 pandemic has caused many losses in our lives: lifestyles have had to change, we cannot easily meet the people who support us, people are suffering and many have died. 

Grief - an overview

Grief is the natural human response to all sorts of losses throughout the life cycle. Each person’s response to loss reflects their relationship to what is lost. Whether that is a person, a lifestyle, a dream, a beloved pet, or a relationship, the principle is the same.

When a person dies the Irish people are noted for how well they respond to support those left behind during the wake and the time between death and burial. Yet many other losses go unacknowledged and people carry pain and grief, caused by a wide range of losses, in their hearts for many years. This grief response may be buried beneath the surface - slightly hidden from sight - but leaking out in other ways.

Considering the stages of grief, which rarely happen in an orderly fashion, may provide some signposts to identifying unrecognized grief so we can support ourselves to grieve naturally as far as we are able. I will reflect on Elisabeth’s 5 Stages of Grief with the losses caused by the current Covid 19 pandemic in mind (May 2020).

1. Denial

When it really is all too much to take in, denying the full reality of the situation before us allows some time for the full implications to download. This is an unconscious process meaning it just happens naturally. Nature has a wonderful internal safety mechanism in the process of denial that protects us from the intensity of pain and suffering in real time. History teaches about the pain and suffering that humankind has suffered throughout the ages and also about the resilience of the human person.

Although denying the full impact of the Covid 19 situation gives some breathing space to the individual it can present challenges for state authorities in their efforts to encourage co-operation from all citizens. We cannot force someone out of denial nor would it be healthy to do so. When we recognize that someone is simply ‘not getting it’ we can be there to listen to where they are at. We can give them time and a listening ear. In gently drawing attention to any contradictions in their line of thought and seeking clarification where required we can support each other to think well. Thinking that serves covering up hurt and pain is rarely recognizable as sound thinking.

2. Anger

How we behave in everyday life may demonstrate the depth of our anger. In the car the time is possibly spent giving out about how badly other people drive. At the supermarket complaining about any delay may be the norm. Continually arguing that the government should do more unsupported by any line of thought about how or what they might do. These often justifiable statements can mask the depth of hurt and anger that may lie underneath the surface. Recent reports of people spitting at police in Ireland, thereby putting their lives in danger, are but one example. One can only wonder at the underlying motivation for such unacceptable, immature and irresponsible behavior.

3. Depression

The time will come when we have a more comprehensive picture of how the Covid 19 pandemic has changed our personal life, our country and our world. In facing the full impact of our new life situation anger and rage are likely to be replaced with an overwhelming sense of loss that may leave us lacking motivation and feeling very sad and lethargic for a while.

We will need time at this stage to reflect and lick our wounds as we nurture ourselves with good wholesome food and sleep - getting to bed early is generally a helpful remedy for inner distress. Restful sleep between 10pm and 6am provides an opportunity for nature to process the impact of whatever is happening in our lives. Being excessively positive in the face of this scenario can simply mark a return to the stage of denial. In Elisabeth’s words, we may encourage others to: “look at the bright side of life, at all the colorful, positive things around them. This is often an expression of our own needs, our own inability to tolerate a long face over any extended period of time.”

4. Bargaining

When the heat of anger subsides there is the possibility of greater clarity about the situation. Only then can effective negotiation take place. Bargaining between the values of citizen and state will be an inevitable consequence. Thus far our government has bargained with us and we have participated in the deal. ‘If we all stay at home unless it is absolutely essential to go out, we will save lives.’ That is a bargain that is hard to argue against. At some later date, facing the implications and the cost of the financial crisis caused by Covid 19, bargaining may prove more difficult. There may be no carrot at the end of the stick because we will have already spent the money we then have to repay. Personal maturity and clear thinking will be vital here. Leaders and citizens who have not dealt with their personal anger are unlikely to be clear thinking in this critical phase and could easily cause a collective return to the stage of anger and rage.

5. Acceptance

If citizens are given time and supported to come to terms with their changed circumstances, each in their own way, the time will come where people are no longer in denial or angry about the circumstances they face. They may not like the changes but the difference will be that although the facts remain unchanged, the heat of anger will have waned.

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