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There Is No Step-by-Step Formula for Grief

Psychological research shows grief doesn’t fit any timeline.

Key points

  • Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a pioneer in normalizing dying and death.
  • Grief responses vary widely, and no two losses are ever the same; there are many variables that impact a person’s grief response.
  • Grief does not follow a step-by-step formula, but rather grief is an instinctive process that is dynamic.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

Most of us are familiar with The Five Stages of Grief; the idea being that you experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance after a significant loss occurs. This staged theory of grief was developed and popularized by a pioneer in the field of grief and death education, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

Kübler-Ross contributed important work that advanced and normalized how we treat the dying. She changed social attitudes in an era where few people were talking about death and helped to create a different culture in the West that normalized deeper conversations around what it means to die. Despite this, Kübler-Ross did not conduct research on grieving or bereaved persons, but rather on people dying from terminal illnesses.

Historically, Kubler-Ross also read other theorists who conceptualized how grief may theoretically follow stages; but staged theories have never been validated by the research literature or by clinical evidence.1 What is more surprising is that staged theories are often routinely utilized in medical education, professional training, and academic textbooks. This reflects how The Five Stages of Grief has become deeply ingrained within our collective society, and grief has now become oversimplified in mainstream popular culture.

In an extreme clinical case, I learned that a grieving person was having their grief response pathologized by another family member, causing them to feel broken for not following The Five Stages of Grief. This demonstrates how staged theories of grief often create unrealistic expectations, and these expectations can complicate a person’s natural response to loss as people don’t believe they are grieving correctly. Outdated theories of grief often create social pressure for people to grieve in a certain way, and typically do not acknowledge human uniqueness.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I suspect the Five Stages of Grief has stuck around as it provides people with a happy ending. If people can go through their stages of grief in an organized and tidy fashion, then people can be done with their grief to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, grief doesn’t work this way, and it’s time for us all to recognize that different expressions of grief are valid.

The truth is grief responses vary widely, and no two losses are ever the same. This is because there are many variables that impact a person’s grief response to a loss event. Our personal lived experience of loss or trauma, developmental stage in life, attachment style, spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, socioeconomic status, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, family history, cultural traditions, and a myriad of other factors influence how people grieve.2

This highlights how grief is an instinctual response to loss, and that a person’s grief response will be impacted by many factors.3 While it is possible to experience the emotions and cognitive processes associated with the five stages, people ultimately do not follow a step-by-step formulation for grief. Grieving, much like living, is far more complicated.

Grief is not bound to a specific timeframe, and in reality, grief is a dynamic process that varies every day. In fact, psychological research on grief and bereavement indicates how there is a more organic ebb and flow to grief. This is captured by the Dual Process Model, which was proposed by researchers Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut.4 Their research highlights how people oscillate (move back and forth) between two distinctive orientations: a loss orientation process, and a restoration orientation process. This highlights how there are good days and bad days when grieving.

Photo by Ellen Qin on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ellen Qin on Unsplash

The loss-oriented process demonstrates the encroachment of grief into our lives and the disorientation, disruption, angst, sorrow, and pain that grief can cause. In contrast, the restoration-oriented process illustrates how we adjust our lives for a life of change after a loss, and we may participate in new experiences or distract ourselves from a loss. This research shows us how grief is an active process that requires us to feel the pain of our loss, and yet also engage in a new process of relearning how to live again. In other words, we often 'ping pong' back and forth between various states in our grief.

The reality is grief doesn’t fit any timeline, and there is no straightforward way through grief. Sometimes our grief is overwhelming, and at other times it is calm. Grief can be predictable, and at other times grief can sneak up on us. The truth is a significant loss will impact the totality of our being, and that grief requires a lot of conscious energy.

It is much more helpful to understand how grief is a unique process for every individual, rather than to suggest people must go through any rigid or linear stage model of grief.


1. Corr, C. (2021). Should we incorporate the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in our current teaching and practice and, if so, how? Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 83(4), 706–728.

2. Shelvock, M., Kinsella, E. A., & Harris, D. (2022). Beyond the corporatization of death systems: Towards green death practices. Illness, Crisis, and Loss, 30(4), 640–658.

3. Harris, D. (2020). Non-death loss and grief: Context and clinical implications. Routledge.

4. Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: A decade on. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 61(4), 273–289.

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