A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association refines our thinking about how people grieve the loss of a loved one. Since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying in 1969, we have accepted her model of five-stages of grieving: (1) Denial – “It can’t be happening,” (2) Anger – “How dare you do this to me?!” (3) Bargaining – “Just let me live to see my son graduate,” (4) Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?” and (5) Acceptance – “I know my husband will be in a better place.” This new study looked at 233 adults in Connecticut over a two-year period of time following the loss of a loved one.
What the Study Shows: Disbelief reaches a peak one moth after the loss, then declines. Yearning steadily increases and reaches its high point at four months before declining. Anger rises to a peak at five months, and depression peaks at six months. Acceptance is strongly present even from the first but becomes increasingly dominant as time passes. When I look at the graph (published by The Atlantic Monthly — June 2007) I notice that even after a year the individual experiences a mixture of all the feelings. The stages and phases do not follow in a neat sequence in which the next stage starts when the previous one ends. The whole process normally takes a year or two to resolve. At the same time, if someone is still wrestling with anger and depression a year after the loss with very little growth in acceptance, they probably need some help in getting unstuck. But at six months, these struggles would be quite normal. I like the added perspective this study provides.
What the Study Does Not Show: (1) Since 84% of the individuals studied lost their spouse due to natural causes, it does not indicate what the reactions would be following the loss of a child. (2) Nor does it predict the reactions of a young person, say an adolescent, whose parent dies. (3) Since 97% of the individuals were White, it does not indicate the effects of ethnic differences. (4) Since all the participants studied lost a loved one to death, the study does not necessarily address reactions to other kinds of losses, like divorce or bankruptcy.
What I Would Add to the Discussion: I think that a person’s spiritual orientation makes a huge difference in how they process the loss of a loved one. Especially significant is the person’s belief in the afterlife and in a loving God who is involved in the affairs of His children. I have witnessed the comfort people receive in the midst of their grief when they claim Psalm 119:75, “in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me.” I have heard a man dying of cancer as well as his wife calmed by the acceptance of the truth that “He who raised the Lored Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (2 Cornithians 4:14). In other words, for the Christian death is ultimately a transition into a new phase of eternal life. It is not the end of life but the beginning of a new kind of life. So I would imagine that a mature Christian would have a different response to death than would a non-believer who could see only “loss” and “the end.”
What Others Say About Grief If you would like a plethora of links to resources on grieving, go to Healing the Grieving Heart. It’s impressive and well organized. More details of the study from Yale can be found in the Chicago Tribune. To see some of my own posts on the subject of grieving, use the search box after entering “grief.”
What Would You Add to the Discussion?