A digital-age reboot of the stages of grief?

It won’t count as a spoiler to tell you that, in the British television series After Life, the main character, Tony, is grieving the death of his wife, Lisa. Written by and starring British comedian Ricky Gervais, After Life is widely celebrated as a uniquely honest, raw and beautiful on-screen depiction of grief. Amid Gervais’ trademark deadpan, irreverent humour, the Netflix series doesn’t shy away from the reality of loss and candidly explores what it can be like to grieve for someone you love.

In episode two of the final season, Tony sits on a cemetery bench near Lisa’s grave, and says to her:

“I still miss you so much, I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I’m not strong enough. Not without you. I’m still going through the stages of grief.”

This idea, that grieving involves a series of stages, is one we hear so very often. The stages of grief are everywhere. But where did they come from? And are they even stages of grief?

If the name Elisabeth Kübler Ross rings a bell, that’s because the stages are attributed to the Swiss American psychiatrist, and her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Kübler Ross proposed that the terminally ill patients she interviewed experienced five stages in response to the knowledge that they were dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. As you’ve probably noticed, Kübler Ross’ book was about dying, not grieving.

Perhaps because On Death and Dying included a chapter extending the stages of dying to the grief of terminal patients’ families—albeit with no basis for this in her findings—the stages of dying started transforming into stages of grief. In the decades since, despite a lack of any credible evidence to support it, Kübler Ross’ stages have been transplanted from dying to grieving, and the model is now universally recognized and culturally cemented as the stages of grief.

What’s the problem with the stages of grief?

Debate and criticism have long swirled around the stages. Not only did they originate from a study about dying, how the stages were applied to grief was also problematic. Decades later, in a book actually about grief entitled On Grief and Grieving (2005), Kübler Ross and David Kessler applied the five-stage model to grief and took issue with its widespread misuse as a set linear, rigid steps experienced by all who grieve.

Research evidence tells us that, though some find the stages useful as a flexible guide, it’s when they turn into a fixed formula for grief that the stages become harmful. Thinking there’s one blueprint for grief, people whose experience doesn’t match the blueprint can think they’re grieving incorrectly, and police their own and each other’s grief according to it. Grief can be hard enough without fearing that you’re experiencing its supposed stages in the wrong order, lingering too long or too little in this stage or that, or worrying that your grief bears little relation at all to the famed stages. When it comes to a phenomenon as distinct and diverse as the people and relationships involved, it’s inevitable that grief doesn’t tuck neatly into a single simple pattern.

Nowadays it’s widely accepted in grief research and practitioner circles that there are no set stages we all go through, grief doesn’t happen in a linear, orderly sequence of tidy experiential parcels, nor does it always come to a clear or absolute endpoint.

Grief stages go electric

You might think that being widely discredited, and replaced by well-evidenced alternative grief theories, would be enough to lay the stages of grief to rest. To the contrary, the stages appear to be alive and well, and undergoing something of a digital-age reboot.

If you search the website of your country’s national health authority for information about grief, you may well find the stages. At the time of writing, the information about grief on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) website lists five stages, which, it says “Experts generally accept that we go through”. The grief information on WebMD, a U.S. health website with around 130 million monthly visitors, states that “Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief”, and then lists the stages, in an article titled ‘Grieving and Stages of Grief’. A 2021 study (Avis, Stroebe & Schut) surveying how Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model is presented online found 61% of eligible websites mentioning the stages and endorsing them with little or no criticalness. When trusted health organisations cite the stages as current, uncontested thinking, and as we increasingly seek health information online, a fertile environment is created for the grief stages to spread.

The five-stage grief model also offers a simple, versatile structure put to many uses in the digital sphere. As well as describing grief for a person, in online articles, videos and meme culture, the stages offer a popular, well-worn structure applied to all manner of scenarios: leaving a job, insomnialosing a big match, reacting to changes in Google’s search settings, a badly received Halo game,  Donald Trump’s election, dealing with imitation butter.  

Each level of 5Days, a virtual reality game for the bereaved, corresponds to a grief stage; in Gris for Nintendo Switch, the protagonist collects trophies for each stage; and PlayStation Plus game Rime centres on a bereaved boy moving through towers representing the stages.

So firmly lodged in the popular imagination are the grief stages that we see them when they’re not there. Two well-known pop-culture treatments are when Dr. Hibbert talks Homer through the stages in The Simpsons, and when a giraffe sinking in quicksand goes through them in Adult Swim series Robot Chicken. However, these two portrayals actually got it right, they’re about the stages that Homer and the giraffe go through in the face of their impending demise. In spite of this, these clips are now famous pop-culture depictions of the stages of grief, with YouTube videos, discussion boards, fan pages and pop-culture wikis listing them as such, spawning comments, articles and memes riffing on the supposed stages.

Next directions: Whether and why this idea is alive and kicking in our digital times?

The notion that grief, or any difficult experience, is a paint-by-numbers progression from darkness into light seems an abiding one. We seem justifiably drawn to the promise of a happy ending, to the potential of whittling down suffering into something manageable. Maybe the complexity and unpredictability of human experience lends an inescapable magnetism to the comforting fantasy of a simple map through our experience, be it the death of someone close, or the pain of eating plastic-tasting butter.

Here in the Danish work package of the DiDe consortium, among other things, we’re fascinated that long-debunked ideas about grieving appear vital in today’s digital contexts. We’re busy mapping the ways this revival may or may not be occurring. More centrally, we’re exploring why the idea of a simple path through grief is so tenacious and evergreen, and we’re unpicking the conditions underpinning its digital-age reboot.


Further reading:

O’Connor M. and Kasket, E. (2022). What Grief isn’t: Dead grief concepts and their digital-age revival. In T. Machin et al. (eds.) Social Media and Technology Across the Lifespan (pp.115-130). Palgrave Studies in Cyberpsychology. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-99049-7_8.

Konigsberg, R. D. (2011). The Truth About Grief: The Myth of its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.


Alternative grief theories and approaches:

Hedtke, L., & Winslade, J. (2016). The Crafting of Grief: Constructing aesthetic responses to loss. London: Routledge.

Neimeyer, R.A. (2001) Meaning Construction and the Experience of Loss. American Psychological Association.

Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. L. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Oxford: Routledge.