a questionable model

When you have just lost a loved one, young or old, suddenly or following a long illness, after any administrative procedures and the funeral, the moment of mourning arrives. It is commonly said to last about a year.

And when we try to understand this process, we quickly come across the “five stages of grief”.

What is it about ?

It is a model popularized by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book “The Last Moments of Life”, published in 1969. The five phases – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – correspond, according to her, to the emotions subsequently experienced by terminally ill patients, before their death.

Based on a number of case studies, this five-step model has been widely adopted, translating from dying to bereaved people.

What are these steps?

After death would therefore come, in order:

  • the stage of denial or shock and disbelief;
  • then anger and the search for someone responsible;
  • then the negotiation phase during which the bereaved tries to deny or minimize reality;
  • then a stage of dejection and withdrawal characterized by depression;
  • and finally acceptance, which leads to the “resolution” of mourning.

Why is this model questioned?

Many studies have been done to try to scientifically validate this model, with conflicting results. Some experts also criticize its rigid and systematic nature: these steps follow one another, in a precise order.

In another book published in 2005, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross ends up specifying: «There has never been talk of dividing the evolution of a complex process into clearly distinct stages (…) Not everyone necessarily goes through these five stages and the reactions do not always follow the same order. ».

However, this concept is still well established, in some studies and for the general public, with no less than 2.5 million occurrences in the French Google (and more than 20 million for an English query).

Is it possible to reduce mourning to a model?

In an article published in the Journal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 2018 and titled “The phases of mourning do not exist”, the French psychiatrist Alain Sauteraud cites a solid study that showed that “the main and specific emotion of mourning is the state of lack of the deceased”and which is maximum during the first six months.

He specifies it too disbelief, when it exists, tends to precede cravings by a few days. If we look at anger, it rather expresses itself before depression, when it exists. Acceptance, on the other hand, closes the march of feelings, which seems logical.. But what must be remembered above all is this “most of the time of mourning, all these feelings coexist and overlap”.

Grieving is therefore not reducible to a model, and depends on each person.

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