Ep #237: Stop Saying “5 Stages of Grief”

The Widowed Mom Podcast Krista St-Germain | Stop Saying “5 Stages of Grief”

Most people have heard of the five stages of grief, but we need to stop talking about it.

The idea of the five stages of grief was first suggested in 1969, but grief theory has come a long way since then.

Tune in this week to discover why the five stages of grief are not reflective of your experience as a widowed mom and why it’s okay that we never reach “acceptance” in grief.


Listen to the Full Episode:

I have a brand-new live workshop coming your way on Thursday, December 14th 2023. You’re invited to attend How Widowed Moms Can Create Rock-Solid Self-Confidence (Without More Therapy, Depressing Grief Groups, or Positive Thinking) so click here to apply!

If you want to create a future you can truly get excited about even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to apply for Mom Goes On.


What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why grief isn’t about working through the stages until we’re finished grieving.
  • How grief theory has drastically changed since 1969.
  • The kind of support you really need after the loss of your person.


Featured on the Show:

  • Leave me a review in Apple Podcasts.
  • Interested in small-group coaching? Join us in Mom Goes On. Click here for details and next steps.
  • Join my free Facebook group, The Widowed Mom Podcast Community.
  • Follow me on Instagram!
  • If you are a Life Coach School certified coach, I’m working on an Advanced Certification in Grief and Post-Traumatic Growth Coaching just for you. If this sounds like something you would love, email us to let us know you want in on the interest list to be notified when it launches!
  • I send out several pick-me-up emails each week including announcements and details for free live coaching sessions. Enter your email in the pop-up on my home page to sign up.
  • The widows in my coaching program shared their advice and encouragement for new widows in this new book, Dear New Widow. Get your copy here!
  • On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
  • On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler


Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 237, Stop Saying “5 Stages of Grief”.

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief, to grow, evolve, and create a future you can truly look forward to. Here’s your host, Master Certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St-Germain.

Hey there, welcome to another episode of the podcast. I’m wondering if it is before December 14th at noon Central in the year of 2023. Have you registered for the How Widowed Moms Can Create Rock Solid Self-Confidence Workshop? Because if not, there is still time. I’m doing this workshop live and I really want to invite you to come. Because nearly every widow I have worked with, including myself, has experienced a dip in self-confidence, a frustrating drop in self-confidence. And it’s super common. We’re not really prepared for it but it is something we can change.

There are tangible, practical things we can do to increase our self-confidence. So just because a dip in self-confidence is normal and common in grief, doesn’t mean we want to tolerate that. I want you to feel good when you make decisions. I want you to feel confident creating whatever it is you want in the next chapter. I want you to go into a room full of people and feel good in your skin. I want you to have peace in your abilities about what it’s like to be a parent.

All of the things that you might be struggling with because your self-confidence has dropped are changeable and that’s what this workshop is all about. But you do have to request an invitation. And the reason for that is because I want to make sure that you are in a place where that workshop would be a good fit for you. So if you’re in the super early days of grief, it’s probably not going to be what you need at this time.

So you have to go to coachingwithkrista.com/rocksolid and fill out a quick questionnaire. It will take you less than five minutes, be honest. And if it is a good fit for you, if you are ready for it, I will send you an invitation. It is totally free. I’m doing it live. I want to see you there. I want to help you with your self-confidence. So we’re going to talk about what’s going on in the brain, what’s going on in the body that makes self-confidence such a frustrating challenge.

We’re going to talk about the difference between confidence and self-confidence because they are different. We need to treat them differently. I’m going to give you practical, tangible, usable things that you can do that will help change your confidence, help increase it. So coachingwithkrista.com/rocksolid. Go get registered before December 14th. If it’s after that you won’t be able to attend it live, but we will have replays available. So I’ve got you either way, but I hope to see you there live.

Alright, this is going to be a relatively short episode, but I think it’s an important one. So if you’ve listened to the podcast for a while this might not be news to you, and honestly I would be super excited if this wasn’t news to you. But I want to assure you that it is news to other people. And so I really want you to listen anyway because I’m hoping you’ll get fired up, you will see things the way that I see them by the time we’re done with this episode. And then you will spread the word, you will tell the people, you will pass it on.

Because you know that I work with widowed moms, that’s my main love as a coach. And also I do a lot of podcast interviews on other people’s podcasts, trying to help other people understand grief. I think, sadly, that we just live in a world that doesn’t get grief and I know if I had known more about grief coming into it, then I would have had an easier experience of it. And that’s the case for almost every widow that I work with. And so in addition to the coaching that I do with widows, I do a lot of trying to educate people about grief.

I also recently started, in addition to lots of podcast guesting is actually going into organizations that want my help and teaching them about grief and teaching them about bereavement so that they understand as an organization how to better support the people that they are serving. And that’s what’s got this on my mind is all of those conversations that I have, be it a podcast interview or a teaching opportunity, often I will ask, “Who here is familiar with the five stages of grief? Who has heard the five stages of grief?” And almost every hand will go up every time.

And then I will ask something like, “Who can name any other grief theory besides the five stages of grief?” And pretty reliably no hands go up or if they do go up they’ll say something interesting that isn’t actually accurate or maybe they’ll name one of the five stages of grief. But point being, that seems to be not only the only grief theory I knew when Hugo died, but it is the only grief theory most people know. And listen, it was invented in 1969, friends, 1969. That was a long time ago.

Grief theory has come a long way since then but nobody’s talking about any other grief theory. And so when we come into a grief experience and we’re using a really outdated theory, we’re not setting ourselves up or those we love for success. So let’s talk about it, five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. You’ve probably heard of them.

These stages originally were created when Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was studying terminally ill patients. She was studying what happens, what are people going through as they describe the experience of coming to terms with their own death, with their own terminal diagnosis. And what she noticed and then documented in her book On Death and Dying, was that often people would have a phase of denial, a stage of denial, and then they would get angry. And then they would bargain. And then they would get depressed and then eventually they would accept their diagnosis, their own mortality.

Very important work at the time because nobody else was talking about it. Pioneering work, and imagine this, a woman in the late 60s doing this pioneering work. Then that work was applied via On Grief and Grieving, another book that she wrote to grief. And for whatever reason, maybe it’s because we like stages, maybe it’s because the number five makes it feel simple. I don’t exactly know why it caught on so much.

But then that seems to be the one that our culture picked up on and we put it in movies and we put it in TV shows. And that’s what we teach doctors in medical school. Unless you are someone who, like me, has a strong interest in grief because it’s what I do all day, you might not have ever heard of another theory of grief. And maybe you have, of course, because you listen to the podcast and because you’re going through your own grief experience, and so you might have read books and you might have educated yourself.

But the general public who is not currently going through something terribly challenging, loss of a spouse, loss of a partner, if you asked them, probably couldn’t tell you that there’s any other theory of grief besides the five stages. And it’s not bad, it’s just inaccurate. One of the things that I think drives me the kind of craziest about it is that it gives the impression that grief has an end. Which is so frustrating when you realize it doesn’t or keep trying to figure out how to make it end.

And I understand why we want it to end, it’s not particularly fun. But grief is just the natural human response to a perceived loss. That’s my favorite definition. The natural human response to a perceived loss. None of us are time travelers. We cannot go back in time and change a loss. And we will always have a response to it. Now, that response will change over time. And that’s a huge part of what I like helping people do is kind of choosing their response to the loss and the different aspects of it and what it means to their life.

Instead of just having that initial rug ripped out from underneath your reaction to loss, we actually choose our response to it and decide what we want it to be and create a relationship with it. So it’s not that the experience or the response to loss doesn’t change over time, but the loss doesn’t change and the response will always be there, which means grief doesn’t end. And five stages makes it sound like it ends. Makes people think all I’ve got to do is first I’m going to deny and then I’m going to be angry and then I guess I’ve got to bargain and then maybe I’ll be depressed.

And then eventually I’m going to reach this place called acceptance. And when I get to that place called acceptance, then I’m going to be out of this misery. And that just isn’t how it works. Acceptance isn’t even a one and done thing. Even if we could agree that that were the final stage of grief and that grief did have stages. It’s not like there is literally a place called acceptance, and we knock on the door and somebody opens and we walk in and we get there. That’s not how it works.

I may have an accepting moment or several moments and then not. It’s continually evolving over time and continually presenting new facets of our loss to us, life is doing this. And so we might wrestle with one aspect of that and then feel some acceptance or peace around it. And then here comes another one later. So grief doesn’t end. Acceptance isn’t a place.

And it’s really painful to watch people try to fit a round peg in a square hole, which is kind of what we do to ourselves by no fault of our own. It’s just because we don’t know any better, which is why I really want you to listen to this. And then I want you to help me. Let’s become a little army for good, where we’re sharing this with people. We’re getting the message out there. So that when I go and talk to people in organizations and I say, “Do you know any other theory of grief?” They will say, “Yes, I’ve heard of the dual process model. I’ve heard of continuing bonds.”

There are many and honestly, I don’t even care if they can quote another one. I just really want them to stop assuming that grief has five stages and that that’s what that’s supposed to look like. And embrace the idea that it doesn’t look like that and that’s okay, also that there’s no right or wrong way to do grief. It’s impossible to do it wrong and it’s impossible to do it right, because that doesn’t exist. How we do it is how we do it. And we’re the ones that get to decide that the way we do it is right for us.

And there’s so many other flexible ways to look at grief that help meet people where they are in grief instead of convincing them that they should be doing it differently or should be having some other experience. The five stages of grief just does not reflect how most people experience grief and yet I keep hearing it.

I mentioned this, I think on the podcast one time, but I was watching when there were the fires in Maui in August, I think, of this year. And I remember turning on the TV and seeing a reporter who was in Lahaina live on the ground and basically what he said was, “I’m live on the ground and I’m seeing the five stages of grief unfold in front of me.” And I just, just I wanted to yell at the TV and tell him to stop saying that. Stop perpetuating it. No right or wrong way. Many theories have developed around grief since 1969. Let’s not put ourselves in boxes.

Let’s not measure ourselves based on old, outdated information. Can you make a deal with me? I can’t see you but can you just agree that you will stop saying it? And then when other people say it, you will lovingly educate them. You can point them towards this episode of the podcast if you want, but can we just collectively, not anymore, please? I think you’re with me.

And then what I want you to think about is not so much what stage am I in, if that’s not the way that it works. Think instead about, what do I need, what am I struggling with and how does that help me decide what kind of support I need? And again, there’s no universals. I even hesitate sometimes to say it, but for a lot of us in really early acute grief, when we are barely getting through the day. We need to focus on baby steps. We need to focus on, just can we get enough sleep? Can we drink enough water? Can we survive? Can we shower?

Can we make sure that we’re still eating the basics? And maybe that’s the point in time where it would feel really good for us to talk to somebody about the loss because it feels so surreal in our brain that we can’t even make sense of it. And we just really need someone who we can talk to that won’t judge us as we vomit all the words. Until at some point it starts to click in that even though we know it’s intellectually real, we actually stop perceiving it to be a dream that we are going to wake up from.

And that probably is not the point in time where we need to be focusing on post traumatic growth or where we need to be thinking about how am I going to make meaning of this loss? No, we’re surviving in those early days. So who cares what we label it? What do we need when widow fog is intense, when we can’t read and retain information, when we are struggling to remember the things that we used to remember, when the highest part of our brain that has a very limited bandwidth anyway, prefrontal cortex, is not as online as it would otherwise be.

Because grief has thrown our body and our hormones and everything out of whack and we aren’t sleeping well and all of that. That is not the time to be focusing on trying to make big decisions, big life changes. I’m not saying we can’t. We are very capable of making decisions and life changes, but that is probably not the kind of support that we need at that moment in time. And this is why I think sometimes people think I’m trying to exclude them in Mom Goes On.

This is why in Mom Goes On we have an application process. Because it would be mean to bring someone into a really intense program, I mean powerful but intense, in depth program. Mom Goes On, it is in depth. It would be wrong to bring someone in who is in super early acute grief and who was in survival mode. That wouldn’t be fair. That wouldn’t be the right level of support. So don’t think about stages. Think about, where am I? What am I struggling with? What kind of support would benefit me most given where I am?

And maybe you’re in that place, that grief plateau place eventually where you do feel back to functioning. You’re no longer trying to survive. You’re not particularly enjoying your life, but you’re past the point of just trying to get through the day. And now what you’re trying to figure out is, is this the way it’s always going to be? Am I just going to keep going through the motions? What do I want to create next? What are the gaps? What tools do I need? What skills do I not have that would help me create what I want to create next?

If this isn’t going to be the end of my story, but if this is just the end of a chapter and I’m going to write a new one and I’m going to write the one that I want to write, whose help do I need to write that? And then we find that kind of support. That’s my favorite kind of support to provide. But I get that not everyone’s going to want that support from me. But if that’s the kind of support you want, does that mean I am in acceptance, therefore? No. It’s just not a useful lens.

Okay, so we have all agreed we are going to stop saying the five stages of grief. We have all agreed, I’m just assuming that you agree with me, we have all agreed that when other people reference the five stages of grief and say things to us like, “Well, I don’t know. Are you in denial? Have you let yourself get really mad? Because I think you’re supposed to get really mad. Do you think you’ve reached acceptance?”

When we see it in popular culture, we’re going to call it out, we’re going to change the narrative around grief. So that those who come after us, who have a grief experience after us, don’t compare themselves to a theory that in its heyday was valuable, but is just simply no longer accurate. Alright, I love you. You’ve got this. Take care and I’ll see you next week. Bye bye.

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence. Please don’t settle for a new normal that’s less than what you deserve. Go to coachingwithkrista.com and click Work With Me for details and next steps. I can’t wait to meet you.

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About your coach

I created a new life using small, manageable steps and techniques that made sense. The changes I experienced were so profound I became a Master Certified Life Coach and created a group coaching program for widows like us called Mom Goes On. It’s now my mission to show widowed moms exactly how to do what I’ve done and create a future they can look forward to.

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