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Why the 5 Stages of Grief are Incorrect

The saying goes that the only things definite in life are death and taxes. We have accountants for our taxes but when it comes to grief, we're expected to just know. The circle of life: A lazy explanation to a complicated experience. This post explains what grief is and what it is not.

The 5 Famous Stages of Grief

The Kubler-Ross stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, also known as the DABDA model. While this has become common knowledge in the mainstream, Stroebe and colleagues at the University of Utrecht have demonstrated that these stages are not only inaccurate but also might be dangerous for people to conform to.

Regarding evidence in favour of the model, the grief literature does state that because the experience of grief differs across individuals, the model can be applicable to some. However, what they fail to state is that the five stages of grief are by no means chronological. Sadness can appear after guilt, and anger after acceptance. Similar to a website with a virus, these states can pop up frequently and when we least expect them. When you look at your child, when you wake up to her birthday, or when you smell a certain street. Our brains work in associations so certain stimuli trigger certain memories, regardless of your consent. The truth is that grief is something that stays with us until someone has to grieve for us. Grief, like any other emotion, is an automatic response, which means we cannot and should not try to stop it happening.

The neuroscience of grief

The loss of someone is interpreted as stress by the brain. This activates the pituitary gland, which leads to the production to cortisone. Rather than an acute stress such as an upcoming exam, grief is a more chronic stress, meaning that cortisone stays in high activation. This can put our immune system at higher risk, which means we’re more susceptible to illness. Furthermore, the fear centres of the brain are also activated during grieving and this can often create feelings of distress, despair or anguish. There is also a reduction in activation in the brain areas responsible for emotion regulation. As a consequence of an overproduction of cortisone, over activation of the fear circuitry and lack of emotion regulation, a deep sadness comes over us or in some cases, depression. This can then lead to short-term memory loss, anhedonia (lack of interest in anything), insomnia and constantly feeling foggy.

However, in most cases, time acts as a healer and the sadness fades away and is replaced by other emotions such as anger and guilt. People are often angry at the situation and begin damning the world and this damnation then turns inward as people feel that they could have done more for the person who has passed away. As people then come to terms with the fact that they can’t control death and that they are not fully responsible for the suffering that the bereaved has experienced, they then accept that death is an important part of life. This is the narration we’re given but remember; this isn’t applicable for everyone. In fact, this knowledge can lead some down the wrong track to search for meaning in the situation. For example, why am I not angry? Or exploring pathways behind why you should feel guilty. Therefore, we should take the 5 stages of grief with extreme caution and an acknowledgement that it might help some grieve, but not everyone.

In conclusion, the 5 stages of grief is a poor attempt to make something extremely complicated oversimplistic. In fact, it can be indeed dangerous to conform to the expectation of needing to follow the steps. The truth is that grief is different for everyone and while there are techniques that can help, there isn’t a one size fits all. On the other hand, people are resilient and are generally able to deal with grief and so, it’s not about doing the right thing. It’s about not doing the wrong thing, which will be explained next week.

Yours Sincerely,

The Motus Movement.


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