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See Inside November 2008

Five Fallacies of Grief: Debunking Psychological Stages

From the stages of grief to the stages of moral development, stage theories have little evidentiary support



Matt Collins

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

So annealed into pop culture are the five stages of grief—introduced in the 1960s by Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based on her studies of the emotional state of dying patients—that they are regularly referenced without explication.

There appears to be no evidence, however, that most people most of the time go through most of the stages in this or any other order. According to Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif. (www.grief-recovery.com), and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998), “no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss.... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

Friedman’s assessment comes from daily encounters with people experiencing grief in his practice. University of Memphis psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer confirms this analysis. He concluded in his scholarly book Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (American Psychological Association, 2001): “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”

Nevertheless, the urge to compress the complexities of life into neat and tidy stages is irresistible. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud insisted that we moved through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson countered with eight stages: trust vs. mistrust (infant); autonomy vs. doubt (toddler); initiative vs. guilt (preschooler); industry vs. inferiority (school-age period); identity vs. role confusion (adolescent); intimacy vs. isolation (young adult); generativity vs. stagnation (middle age); and integrity vs. despair (older adult). Harvard University psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that our moral development progresses through six stages: parental punishment, selfish hedonism, peer pressure, law and order, social contract and principled conscience.

Why stages? We are pattern-seeking, storytelling primates trying to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world. A stage theory works in a manner similar to a species-classification heuristic or an evolutionary-sequence schema. Stages also fit well into a chronological sequence where stories have set narrative patterns. Stage theories “impose order on chaos, offer predictability over uncertainty, and optimism over despair,” explained social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman (Touchstone, 1993) and co-author, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007), in an interview with me. “One appeal of stage theories is that they tell a story—they give us a narrative to live by (‘you feel this now, but soon ...’). In cognitive psychology and also in ‘narrative psychotherapy,’ there has been a lot of work on the importance of storytelling. Some therapists now make this idea explicit, helping clients change a negative, self-defeating narrative (‘look at all I suffered’) into a positive one (‘I not only survived but triumphed’).”

What’s wrong with stages? First, Tavris noted, “in developmental psychology, the notion of predictable life stages is toast. Those stage theories reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably: marrying at an early age; then having children when young; then work, work, work; then maybe a midlife crisis; then retirement; then death. Those ‘passages’ theories evaporated with changing social and economic conditions that blew the predictability of our lives to hell.”

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