Elisabeth Kubler Ross Theory Explained


What do you feel when someone close to you dies? What would you feel if a doctor told you that you had a terminal illness?

For many, the emotion of these circumstances would be “grief.” The Elisabeth Kubler-Ross theory originally suggested that when severe grief occurs, people will undergo a series of emotions that occur in consecutive stages, though she later explained that they are not intended to be linear. The five stages are common experiences which occur in any order, but may not always occur for some individuals.

What Are the 5 Stages of Grief?

Published in On Death and Dying, the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross theory of grief offers stages of emotion that are sometimes abbreviated as DABDA.

  • Denial. In this emotional stage, an individual believes that their circumstances are somehow incorrect. Either the diagnosis was wrong, the news was incorrect, or something else has happened to make everyone believe something that is not true. The goal is to cline to a reality that is preferable, but false.
  • Anger. At some point, the individual realizes that they can no longer continue existing in their false reality. This creates frustration, often targeted at the individuals who originally brought them the news which caused grief. A common response to this stage of grief is to ask questions, such as “Why me?” Statements such as, “It’s not fair,” are also present.
  • Bargaining. Once the energy from anger begins to fade away, the individual begins searching for a way to avoid feeling grief. The goal is to create a source of hope. People may bargain with God, with doctors, their family, or themselves, asking for more time or for circumstances to be different. In return, the individual will live a better life or offer to give anything in return for more time with someone they have lost.
  • Depression. If the bargaining doesn’t provide the hope which is desired, a state of sadness descends upon the individual. It is a depression that is based on the recognition of their own mortality or the loss that has been experienced. It is common for people to become sullen, silent, and isolate during this stage of grief. They may feel like nothing is worth doing because of how they feel, their diagnosis, or the loss which was experienced.
  • Acceptance. In this stage, the individual will make a decision. They will either begin preparing to confront their circumstances head-on or realize that life will continue to go on, despite what has happened.

The initial Kubler-Ross theory of grief was a description of major events in life. It was a reflection of the death of a loved one or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. After her initial publication of the DABDA process, she expanded it to include other major life events that can happen to people.

The five stages of grief could occur, according to Kubler-Ross, when someone lost their job or a source of income. It might happen because of a divorce or the ending of a long relationship. Drug addiction, the onset of a long illness, infertility, or even a long-term incarceration could also result in these stages of grief occurring.

Kubler-Ross also suggests that any traumatic event that occurs to an individual may cause feelings of grief to occur, which would initiate the DABDA process. Something as simple as a person’s favorite sports team losing an important game could cause grief.

A supported candidate losing a political election could also trigger this process.

Criticism of the Elisabeth Kubler Ross Theory

The primary criticism of the Kubler-Ross theory of grief is that it is difficult to obtain empirical evidence to support it. The existence of the stages is difficult to demonstrate because people handle their emotions in a unique way. Some people can endure grief with a great tenacity while others are completely overwhelmed by their emotions and shut down.

A person’s emotions are also directly affected by their environment. Someone in a supportive family environment with regular counseling may not endure the same severity in their stages of grief than someone trying to do it all on their own.

This means that helping someone who is experiencing grief creates a blurred line where the description of what is happening to them may also be part of the prescription needed to handle the difficult emotion. For example: if someone needs to confront their false reality, they must first realize that their reality is false.

Grief is never easy to endure. By recognizing this emotion and the DABDA stages, however, the Elisabeth Kubler Ross Theory suggests that it can be managed.