The Book Thieves
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The Book Thieves

The 5 Stages of Death

A lesson the pandemic teaches us all over again.

It has been more than 50 years since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. published her remarkable work on the way terminal patients experience death and how the people around them — family and friends, doctors and nurses — could understand and help in the process. Her book, called “On Death and Dying” is not remembered by most and her name is rarely mentioned nowadays.

A statue of a grieving wife on the bedside of her dying husband. Death and Grief.
Image by Gerson Rodriguez from Pixabay

But the stages she described dying patients going through, they definitively lived on. At some point, the 5 stages were applied to a much wider group of people: those in grief. Primarily, but not solely, for the ones who have lost someone close to them. The stages have long now become a part of pop culture, being used for much lighter types of grief, not related to death. My guess is you have seen the stages around enough that you can more or less name them yourself, but I’ll go through them as their original author described them.

Denial

This stage is probably best exemplified in a reaction like “No, not me, it cannot be true.”, when one first receives the terrible news. In its most extreme forms, entire scenarios and plots can be subconsciously manufactured to avoid facing the hard reality. It can also manifest as partial denial throughout the grieving process, making for a significant coping mechanism, as a constant flow of painful emotions can be very hard to handle.

Anger

Sooner or later, “No it can’t be me.” gives way to a reaction that is typically loaded with rage, envy and resentment: “Why me?”. We almost wish that the tragedy would hit someone else, it doesn’t feel fair that it turned out this way. And when it does happen, it kind of seems like it’s our fault. So it is no surprise that people become angry with God, with the universe, or with themselves.

Bargaining

Less known, but truly helpful for shorter periods of time; trying to strike a deal with the forces responsible for our tragedy, when being angry at them hasn’t helped. Maybe we could at the very least buy some valuable time and postpone the inevitable.

Depression

This is when reality finally sets in. Eventually our numbness or stoicism, our anger and rage are replaced by a profound feeling of loss. This generates a great sadness that others usually wish to soothe and take away, in order to make both themselves and us feel better. But experiencing this sorrow is a crucial step towards the final stage and should not be minimized or avoided. It is a feeling to be worked through if we are to eventually find peace.

Acceptance

This should not be seen as a happy stage. It is in a way devoid of feelings. We no longer need to fight, to fix anything. Accepting the way things have turned out is the only peaceful and meaningful way forward. It is a product of all of the above processes, which take time, patience and support to resolve.

The lesson we have forgotten

Contrary to what the contemporary use of the 5 stages might have you believe, they were never meant to be a blueprint of everyone’s process of grief. Some go through the stages in another order or skip stages altogether. The important thing is to reach the final stage of Acceptance without tearing yourself or others apart in the process. By familiarizing ourselves with this process, we learn to recognize and understand the different emotional states people often go through when grieving.

In fact, this model for understanding grief is considered to be outdated. But the essence of what Elisabeth Kubler-Ross tried to teach us through her work still holds true. Originally, the actual lesson attached to these stages was that we had mistakenly made the reality of death foreign to us. Death was then and still is, a subject to be conveniently forgotten in our everyday lives. A concept children should be shielded from as long as possible. The only effect this line of reasoning has had, is leaving us unprepared for the reality of death, when it inevitably hits us, directly or indirectly.

Finding peace among death

Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest, most recent and painful reminder of this difficult truth. The fact that the very nature of the pandemic has made many people die in isolation, away from their loved ones has of course not helped. While fighting death and saving lives is very important, accepting that death is unavoidable and all around us is essential in more ways than one. Can we find the strength and acceptance in ourselves individually and as societies, in order to move forward? Not by burying or minimizing what has happened but by burning in our memories the lessons this pandemic can teach us, the part that death has to play in life being possibly the most important one.

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