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New science of loss questions five stages of grief

by CHWatch on November 16, 2010

Is the five-stage model of grief overstated? Yes, according to Dr. George Bonanno. In his recent book, The Other Side of Sadness, Dr. Bonanno notes the current scientific literature has found no evidence that this 5-stage model exists for the bereaved.
When Kubler-Ross developed the 5-stage model, she was studying people who had a terminal illness, grappling with their own mortality. Kubler-Ross believed people passed through these five stages: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance. But, grief related to the passing of a loved one appears to follow a different course.
Rather than the 5-stage model, several scientific studies indicate that people go through more of a wave-like pattern between two processes: loss-oriented and restoration-oriented. (see Stroebe and Schut, 1999, 2000, 2001).
During loss-oriented waves, the bereaved person focuses on thoughts and feelings about their loved one. At these times, the bereaved tends to appraise the meaning of the loss, the relationship, and spiritual beliefs. In contrast, during restoration-oriented waves the bereaved person focuses on practical matters of readjusting to daily life. Moreover, these restoration-oriented waves involve moving forward with life, revising one’s identity, and engaging in other relationships and activities.
Knowing this oscillation pattern is “the norm” is useful because so often bereaved people question what they’re feeling. Bonanno states, “Bereavement is essentially a stress reaction, an attempt by our minds and bodies to deal with the perception of a threat to our well-being…. Relentless grief would be overwhelming. Grief is tolerable, actually, only because it comes and goes in kind of an oscillation.”
Bonanno’s research also notes most people are resilient and adjust to loss fairly well. Even though it’s normal to have waves of profound sadness as we’re adjusting to the passing of a loved one, Bonnano reports that only 10-15% of bereaved people actually struggle with prolonged grief.
Those of you who have studied with Jon Connelly, LCSW, Ph. D. know that he also disagrees with the 5-stage model. Dr. Connelly believes grief is essentially caused by the perception of loss. However, eliminating the perception of loss significantly reduces grief and suffering.
As Dr. Connelly thinks of it, “All you ever get from someone is experiences you acquire as a result of being with them. No one can take that away from you, you’ll never lose those experiences. Furthermore, you can’t lose things that never happened. So, in a sense you really haven’t lost anything.” He then helps bring the person into an experience of ongoing connection with their loved one, illustrating that it is not lost.
My intention is not to minimize the experience of the death of a loved one. Rather, it is to help us understand typical grief experiences, and to know most of us come out on the other side alright.
Please share your opinions about healthy ways to cope with grief.

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