The stages of mourning of Kübler Ross

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Robert Maurer

The stages of mourning of Kübler Ross

Last update: July 06, 2018

Among the various studies on how to deal with death, one of the best known is that of the 5 stages of mourning by Kübler Ross. This theory tells us about the 5 stages we have to go through when we face death, whether it's our own or someone else's. Kübler Ross's studies have become very popular, but also misinterpreted, probably due to poor disclosure.

In 1969 the psychologist Kübler Ross conducted a series of studies on some dying patients in order to identify the factors underlying the grief. After intense research, he found that these patients all went through some very similar stages. It was following this discovery that he began to develop the theory of the stages of mourning and their consequences. 

In this article we try to shed some light on Kübler Ross' theory of the five stages of mourning. First of all, we expose and explain the different phases; To conclude, let's do a little reflection on the evidence and implications of this mourning theory.

Stages of mourning of Kübler Ross

The distinct phases of mourning show us the succession of attitudes adopted by a person facing death. These stages arise as a consequence of the mind's attempts to solve the problem and, all proving to be ineffective, the emotions vary until they reach acceptance. Below we explain the stages of Klüber-Ross mourning:

  • Denial. The coming of death is denied or refused. It can be total (“I can't possibly die”) or partial (“I have metastases, but it's nothing serious”). Denial reflects a self-defensive attitude. Our mind tries to guarantee our well-being despite being in a situation of utmost helplessness.
  • Anger. This emotion arises when an obstacle has to be faced. It is therefore normal that after receiving very bad news, the body tries to resolve the situation through anger. The victims or the targets of this reaction can be different, from themselves, the doctors or even the "divine figures".
  • Negotiation. Now aware of the uselessness of anger in order to solve the problem, we move on to negotiation. The desperate person asks destiny or divine figures for death to disappear. It is common for the person to become "docile" in the hope of extending his life for good behavior; for example, following all medical prescriptions to the letter.
  • Depression. When the disease worsens or the fateful reality sets in, depression appears. The person falls prey to despair due to the strong feeling of helplessness. Deep sadness has the function of minimizing the consumption of resources in the presence of an unsolvable situation.
  • Acceptance. Abandoned and accepted the feeling of helplessness produced by the loss, we move to a less intense, more neutral emotional state (even if there are still more acute moments). In the phase of acceptance, the person is able to accept what has happened and to raise his head towards the future, as well as interpreting in a meaningful way what has been lost without blaming anyone.

Evidence and implications of Kübler Ross' theory of stages of mourning

Klüber-Ross's stage theory of mourning has received numerous criticisms. A very frequent, and understandable reading the original formulation of this theory, concerns the rigidity of the proposed model. According to the original formulation, the subject can remain in the phase in which he is or advance to the next one. Current research, and perhaps personal experience, tells us that this is not true. It is common for demotions to occur, to skip a few steps, or to pass all of them, but in different order.

It is equally true, however, that they all play an extremely important role in dealing with death and that their disposition adapts almost perfectly to the evolution of most bereavement. On the other hand, perhaps the ideal would be to interpret the different states as attitudes towards loss and not as phases of it; or ways we have to manage the impotence generated by the situation.

Although the Klüber-Ross theory is partially incomplete, it certainly represented a great step forward in understanding grief. The research of the Swiss psychologist helped to fully understand the emotions that arise following the loss, which has resulted in better and more suitable treatments for people who find themselves in this situation, starting with the normalization of their feelings. This model has also made psychologists more adept at treating "premature" deaths and diagnoses of terminal illness.

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