Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character.

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character#sthash.jNiDqsod.dpuf%5D

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at http://www.ywam-fmi.org/tl_files/ywam-fmi/images/articles/2015/Stages_of_Grief.jpg)

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.

4 thoughts on “Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

  1. This is another fantastic blog about dealing with grief. Spot on while staying true to your characteristic gentleness and encouragement to all grievers in all stages. I applaud your perseverance in helping others. Thank you. Dawn Bell

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I so agree, Teresa. I went through a 4-year separation from my husband that was the death of lifelong dreams. It was incredibly traumatic. We’re back together, but I still mourn what could have been. My father died more than 12 years ago. Maybe because we weren’t very close, I got through the initial stages of grief pretty quickly, but every now and again, I’ll find myself sobbing over his loss.
    As a writer, I have one particular character in a novel that NEVER really comes out the other end of his grieving process. His addiction becomes his comfort. It’s heartbreaking but it’s also what makes him a unique individual. Thanks for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kim. I think most people learn to live with the grief that marks and changes them, but few can say, “All done. Never have to feel that again.” I don’t mean to imply that grief will always be at the forefront of emotions for the rest of their lives, but I do believe it becomes a component that revisits from time to time. And every one of us is unique in our backgrounds, strengths, relationships, challenges … No wonder our grieving takes on its own characteristics when we lose someone we love.

      Liked by 1 person

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