What are the five stage of grief and why should writers care?

Kubler Ross CurveElisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist famous for writing a book titled On Death and Dying (1969)This may seem a sober topic for a blog post but stay with it. In this book she first documented what is now known as the Kübler-Ross model for the Five Stages of Grief. If you wish to know more about her and her work then please visit the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation website. In this post I will talk about the model and the curve that is used to illustrate it (and my own version is in the image to the left).

Why is this important to writers?

I want you to read this so I’ll explain why first.  A common way to move a story along is to change the status quo of its hero. This could be through the death of a loved one but could also be the end of a relationship, loss of a job or any other event that marks a loss. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes the stages people most often go through in these situations. Your characters should do the same. I also find some echoes with the monomyth in this but that is a topic for a different post.

The Five Stages of Grief

In simple terms the stages are:

  1. Denial – this isn’t happening
  2. Anger – looking for something to blame
  3. Bargaining – seeking a compromise
  4. Depression – important as it shows the beginnings of acceptance of the new reality and the start of grieving
  5. Acceptance – the individual has adjusted to the new reality.

The curve attempts to show the energy that an individual has. Imaging being sacked from a job: here the first reaction might be anger and it is common for HR departments to train managers on how to dismiss people without allowing anger to boil over. This energy dissipates as the individual tries to hold on to something (and in a love affair it is the classic Can we still be friends? moment). Depression may be seen as negative and energy will be low; it is a necessary stage though.

The curve also shows that acceptance can be gradual and it can take time to get back to being fully functional after an emotional upheaval.

How to use this

Not only should characters in your stories move through the stages, but they should also move through at different rates. This can be a good source of narrative tension – imagine the angry son who has just heard bad news, wants to fight somebody and turns the anger onto a relative who has moved through anger into a later stage. This can then lead to further splits in the family.

Imagine also a character who refuses to move past Denial? This is part of the premise of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down about an unemployed worker who still goes out in the car every day as though going to work.

There is a lot more that I could writer but I think that is enough to be going on with. I’d love to hear your own examples; do get in touch.

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