Good Grief: Setting the Stage for the Five Stages

I love psychology and sociology. They are useful and interesting in life and in fiction. While there is an expansive pool of issues to choose from, I have been thinking a lot about one topic in particular: grief. Grief is the reaction to any great loss — be it a person, place, object, position, etc. It is a trademark of life. Most people, if not all, will experience loss in their lifetime. And everyone deals with it differently.

So how does one write grief? Obviously each person will make grief their own, but some scientists believe that there is a basic grief formula (that will bend and twist as needed for the individual). The Kubler-Ross Model is a cycle made up of five stages that victims of loss tend to go through as they cope with their grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in that order) are the emotions that make up the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Some doctors believe that these stages happen one after another in ascending order, like steps. Other doctors disagree and maintain that the average person is complicated and will go through the five stages (or states) in their own way. Either way, I think I’ve found a consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the five basic emotions are the make up of the common reaction to loss.

Personally, I agree with the more contemporary view that says that the grief cycle is not so much steps or phases as they are states. “Rather than distinct, sequential stages of grief, it may be more accurate to conceptualize proposed stages as multidimensional grief states that evolve and diminish in intensity over time” (Prigerson, Maciejewski). But since “stages” is the more common terminology for this kind of thing, I’ll stick to that.

The Kubler-Ross Five Stages (or States) of Grief in Detail

1. Denial — The refusal to acknowledge the situation. Characters avoid feeling anything relating to their loss — sometimes characters will avoid feeling anything at all. If we refer back to the Johari Window, denial would be everything that you hide from yourself, what you keep inside your blind spot.

2. Anger — This is the point where things start getting complicated. Instead of a void of emotion, there is an explosion of emotion. And often, those emotions will contradict with each other. At losing a loved one, for example, a character might get angry at them but still love them.

Beware that each character will have a different voice. While some will shout their anger out loud, others will bubble up and boil within. Also think about how healthily your character is able to express their anger. Will they channel it through art or therapy or will they act out? Note: Acting out is usually a good fit for a weaker character, who easily gives into pressure. Does your character attack and push his discomfort onto others? Consider your options.

3. Bargaining — Here, your character gets desperate. In seeing that anger does nothing to help the situation, the character will break down and try to think of anything that will get them/it back. The character will believe that maybe if he stops drinking or starts going to church, his wife will come back. After the loss has occurred, it is usually a private process, worked out between the character and his Higher Being – a series of what if’s? will ensue. What if I had been kinder? What if I had worked harder? But other times, particularly before the loss has actually happened, it’s a process that happens directly between the character and his dying love (a job, a relationship, a dying parent, etc). You can see that there is a tinge of denial in this stage when you look at how the character is either convinced that he can stop the loss before it happens or undo what’s already been done.

4. Depression — Given up yet? Denial didn’t make it go away and neither did anger or bargaining.  On feeling abandoned and helpless, a character will retrieve into himself. This is when the character finally breaks down and mourns. Characters finally face the reality of the situation. This stage is the stage most commonly associated with grief. Whenever I hear about someone losing a loved one, I think about how upset they must be.

5. Acceptance — This can take a lifetime to reach. But it is a highly rewarding feeling to finally accept a loss. Sometimes people even walk away from grief feeling like they have bettered themselves through the process. Your character might feel themselves wiser, kinder, or more understanding.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give and take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

Michael Newland on This I Believe

Grief is an obstacle I find very interesting in fiction (and in life). It tests our abilities to cope and establishes who we are under pressure.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dirtywhitecandy
    May 08, 2010 @ 22:03:06

    So many writers get this wrong in novels. And this doesn’t just apply to grief, but to any major change. Could be a job loss, a break-up… good post!


  2. Dominique
    May 09, 2010 @ 03:42:24

    Thank You, Roz :)

    But, actually, the five stages are way too simple a guide for writers who want to delve into grief. I was going to go down that path but then I realized… I needed something more real. The five stages are just too easy.


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