Grief Models – Explaining the Emotions of Grief Recovery

By Darryl Pendergrass

As the primary caregiver for my wife, I learned about the various topics that families face when caring for someone with a life-threatening disease. Lynne battled glioblastoma for nearly four years before succumbing to the disease. Glioblastoma is a stage 4 brain cancer that is recognized for its fast-growth and recurring properties. Having learning about grief models prior to Lynne’s illness, the learning helped with my grief recover process. The models provide a framework to understand the various emotions that one faces during a significant loss.

While different grief models exist, proposed by many experts, in 1969, Kübler-Ross published the first, widely accepted model of grief. This work provided insight into the emotions that people experience when facing death. Much literature references this model and serves as a basis for discussion, in many articles and papers that followed its release. Later, other researchers extended or revised the model to include other people who experience grief, not only to those facing death. The model suggested a linear progression through the grief. Over time, a growing number of experts rejected the idea that people progress sequentially through the phases. As a result, some experts subsequently provided additional models to help understand grief and the affects that grief has on people.

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Like me, you might discover parallels within your grief like those described in the model. Some describe the experience with these grief phases as overlapping at times with some phases extending for prolonged times. I know that grief is not a tidy or straightforward process. Some claim the grief experience feels more like the ball in a pinball machine bouncing from one stage to another with nothing described as sequential. We just need to keep in mind that the way each person experiences grief is unique to the individual. The one huge benefit of these models is that they provide some legitimization for the emotions we experience as individuals as we recover from a significant loss.

Because people reference the Kübler-Ross model most often, I will provide an overview of the following stages:

Shock and Denial

During the shock and denial phase, the shock of the loss is overwhelming. This occurs whether the loss is sudden or anticipated. The griever tends to deny that the loss will occur or has already occurred. This is a normal part of process for most people. The brain’s protection mechanisms help griever’s try to cope with the loss.

Anger

Another normal part of grief is the emotion of anger that surfaces because of the loss or the anticipation of the loss. The griever may blame family, friends, or even themselves. The grieved may even blame the person they lost. It is important that the griever express the emotions through sharing with a trusted person to avoid prolonged depression, self-destructive behaviors, health issues, or other negative effects. Depending on the depth of grief, this may lead to a friend, spiritual advisor, counselor, therapist, or physician.

Bargaining

In the bargaining phase, the grieved bargain with themselves, other people, or even with God to avert the loss. The grieved try to seek out options to change the reality of the loss.21

Depression

For some, the depression phase is the feeling of sadness or despair, while for others this phase results in clinical depression. It is important to seek out support from a doctor, counselor, therapist, friend, or support group. This phase often leads to other problems, both physical and emotional, if not addressed. For some, this phase is often the longest phase of the grieving process. We pay this price as human beings because we care about others. In any major loss, it is not a sign of weakness to ask for support, in fact, this is an inevitable step, necessary in the grief recovery process. The griever then begins to deal with the often-painful memories and begins to learn to cope with the life changes resulting from the loss.

Acceptance

The acceptance phase results when the pain of the loss begins to lessen. The griever begins to look ahead. The acceptance of the loss causes the griever to move forward, embracing, or at least accepting the changes that the loss created in their lives. The depleted energy resulting from grief begins to increase steadily, as the weight of sadness and despair begin to lift from the griever’s shoulders.

This grief model does not provide a comprehensive approach to understanding the grief recovery process but does provide a framework for discussion. Other experts have provided other models that add to the body of knowledge about this human experience. Grief is a universal human experience, yet the experience is unique to each individual. I hope that by sharing my personal experience that others will also benefit.

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