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Bonds Forever: A Healthier Way to Grieve
The Stages of Grief vs The "Aha" Concept of Grief
TL;DR The stages of grief were created based on research done on those actively dying. The stages were never intended to be applied to the grief of the loved ones left behind. The general public doesn’t know this because we don’t talk about grief, and well meaning people try to tell us about these stages (and where we are in them) because that’s what they know from pop culture. For some, there is a much healthier grief concept - Continuing Bonds.
Here’s the academic background:
The stages of grief model was developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s to describe the emotional and psychological experiences of people who were actively dying, not those who were mourning after the death of a loved one.
In 1969, Kubler-Ross observed in her book "On Death and Dying" that people who were dying often went through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as they came to terms with their own death.
Over time, the stages of grief model has been adapted and applied to the experience of mourning after a loved one has died, despite the fact that Kubler-Ross intended the model to describe the experience of dying rather than grieving.
Why the Stages of Grief concept makes me (and many others) nuts:
I deeply respect Kubler-Ross, as she is the one that opened up the world to discussing death and dying. She is the reason we have the Thanatology field.
My issue is that this model has been misinterpreted by people (many well meaning) for decades, leading grievers thinking they are somehow grieving incorrectly when they still feel their connection, or that they need to come to the final stage by putting all of their loved ones belongings away and forgetting about them.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
No one grieves incorrectly. It is personal to you, on YOUR timeline.
You can do WAY more harm than good by trying to get to the point of forgetting. You won’t ever forget them - and that is healthy!
Thinking you are “delayed” in your grief leads to all kinds of self judgment that you don’t need in your life. You are not delayed.
One of the reasons I became a Thanatologist (a person who studies grief, death, & dying) was because when my husband died, I found myself completely isolated in my grief.
I had no idea what I was doing, and I got some really crummy “advice” along the way, including being told I needed to grieve a certain way, based on the Steps. When you are going through loss, and don’t have any peers to guide you (or even if you do), you will pretty much listen to whomever seems to know what they’re talking about.
An awesome therapist finally helped me discover that grief has no hard or fast rules, and that those who talk about grief following stages are either confused about how to talk to me about grief, or are projecting their own uncomfortable experiences and unprocessed grief. That experience led me to the field of Thanatology and becoming a grief educator. I never want anyone to feel that lost.
Enter the Continuing Bonds Concept:
This is the “Aha” grief concept, as What’s Your Grief calls it. I love that name.
The Continuing Bonds Model, proposed by Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, says that grievers maintain ongoing connections with their deceased loved ones even after death. Grief is not about letting go or moving on, but rather about finding ways to adjust to a new relationship with the deceased and continuing to maintain a bond with them in some way.
This means having a relationship with your loved one, no matter how long they’ve been gone. 2 months or 20 years or 60 years.
Talking to your loved ones. Sharing their photos. Celebrating their birthdays, milestones, etc. Keeping their collars. Bringing them up in conversations. Missing them. Crying over a sudden reminder. All of it. (Remember when I included my mother in law and nephew in my wedding? That’s a part of maintaining connections in the way that I choose.)
For far too long it has been assumed that those who kept their loved ones at the forefront of their minds were taking longer than they should to grieve, when, in fact, it is the opposite. The researchers behind Continuing Bonds found that those who remained connected to their loved one were far more resilient in their healing process.
So build those bonds, talk about your people and animals and loves that you miss. It HELPS.
PS: For some people it may be healthier to not continue a bond, and that is ok, too! We each grieve differently. This piece is to help those who know intuitively that they are healthier when they talk about who they miss. As always, grieve in the way that helps you most.