Here’s What the Five Stages of Grief Get Totally Wrong

On How To!, a grief expert who experienced tragic loss urges us to think about death differently.

Someone with their hands folded looking down sadly.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of How To!, Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK, reveals why the classic five stages of grief are misunderstood. Grief doesn’t progress in an orderly fashion, says Megan, who knows all too well what it’s like to have your life go sideways with the sudden death of a loved one. Megan’s partner died at 39 in a tragic accident, and in the years since, Megan has learned how to pick up the pieces. In this episode of How To!, Megan shares what to say—and, moreover, what not to say—when a loved one is grieving. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: So a little over 10 years ago, you and Matt, your partner of five years, went for a walk near where you lived in Maine after several days of rainfall. As you were walking through the woods, Matt decided to go for a swim in the river.

Megan Devine: Matt was an amazing athlete. He was really skilled in the water and the woods. We never worried about him being out in a river, but the river that day was really fast. There was an undercurrent that hadn’t been there the millions of times we’d been at the river before. Matt got stuck in the currents and was carried down the river. I went into the water after him to help and also got carried down the river. I just happened to get spit back out on the shore and he did not.

I don’t think that our brains can allow in the full force of something like that all at once. I think there’s a protective mechanism in there. This is why people go into shock. It’s the body’s way of protecting the organism from the enormity of the situation.

There was a lot of stuff that needed to happen. Matt and I were picking up my stepson from the airport that day. He was actually coming back from a visit to his mom. I had to go meet Matt’s son and sit him down and talk him through how his dad died. There were funeral arrangements to be made. There were in-laws to be called. For me, shifting into tactical mode was the way that I survived for the first couple of weeks.

Those first days were, to be totally blunt about it, a lot of screaming. The reality of what happened honestly took years to unfold, piece by piece. Two and three years later, I would go to call Matt or I would see something I thought was really cool that he would like and I would go to text him. It’s like part of your brain doesn’t get the memo that your person died.

What did people say to try to comfort you? 

I realized that what we say to people when they’re in pain isn’t necessarily helpful. I heard so much stuff from friends, from family members, from fellow therapists just around resilience, around bouncing back, around not letting his sudden death “wreck my life.”

When people would say, “You’re so strong and you’re so smart. You’re going to find a way to get through this,” the way that felt for me was, “Don’t feel the way that you feel. Stop letting this upset you.” I actually overheard people in coffee shops say, “She must not have been a very good therapist if something like this upsets her.” We just really believe that our job is to cheer somebody up, so I was on the receiving end of a lot of cheering up. It does have that effect of making you feel invisible. And for me, at a time when I already felt like nobody understood me, it made me feel even more isolated because nobody could really just acknowledge the sheer amount of pain that I was in.

I think all of us would relax a lot more around grief if we just let it be awkward. A lot of the time we try to be confident or pretend that we’re confident or pretend we know what we’re doing. It makes such a big difference if we can just say, “I feel really awkward about this, but I’m showing up anyway.”

What’s the one thing that we shouldn’t say? 

“Let me know how I can help.” It’s something that people say all the time. And I want to take that apart for a second. When Matt died, I had his stepson, my in-laws, and my family to tell what happened. I had funeral arrangements to make. I had my own “what the hell just happened?” going on. So when somebody would show up and say, “Let me know if you need anything,” when was I gonna have time to do that? If you think about how often in normal daily life you get stressed out and you feel like you could use a hand—how often do you actually ask somebody for help? Not very often. We are a culture of people who don’t tend to ask for help, especially when we’re really struggling.

Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” think about the things that you could offer and what that other person might need. If you know that the kids need to get to soccer practice and Mom just lost her husband, you could in a text message or in a voicemail say, “I know that the kids have to get back and forth to soccer practice. I am very happy to drive them, pick them up, and bring them home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Would that be helpful for you?” Concrete, tangible offers that the person can either ignore or say “yes” or “no.”

You know, we’re talking during the coronavirus pandemic. We’re hearing on social media, in the news, and in phone calls with friends, people getting sick. Do you think we should try to console them or should we respect their private space and let them have this moment of grief?

I would always go with acknowledge without invading. I keep having this memory of in the days after Matt died, I had gone to a coffee shop and I was telling a friend about what happened. After hearing, that person left, the person who was sitting at the next table came over, crouched down by the table next to me, put their hand on the table, and said, “I just want to let you know that I’m sitting right next to you. And I overheard that story and I can’t not say something. I’m so sorry that happened to you. And I hope things feel a little bit more gentle to you today.”

I felt loved. They didn’t invade my boundaries. They didn’t put their arms around me. They didn’t press for details. They overheard a conversation that they were not invited to, but it was also a very human moment that they didn’t feel that they could ignore. So they made a really beautiful gesture. This is an unprecedented, unpredictable, chaotic time with a lot of people scared and a lot of people in pain and grieving. We want to be really brave about opening conversations in areas that are usually pretty scary.

Do you think the five stages of grief can help people deal with loss and have those conversations?

The five stages of grief model is really problematic. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created those stages almost 50 years ago now as a way to help dying people understand what they might be feeling when they receive their terminal diagnosis. She never meant them to be used for grief. It wasn’t even you are going to feel these things in this order—it was here are some things you might experience and we want you to know you’re normal if you’re feeling them. That’s news to a lot of people who have learned through pop culture or movies that everybody who is grieving needs to go through these five stages of grief and you need to go through them in order. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.

Grief is not something separate from love. It’s part of love. This idea that grief is something that you do correctly and it’s over—that’s a lie. It’s never going to be OK that Matt’s dead. And I have a really beautiful life, a really beautiful career where I get to help a lot of people—I only have this specific career because he drowned. That’s never gonna not be weird.

If Matt’s son chooses to get married, if he chooses to have children—the milestones he hits in his life—his dad won’t be there. There is never going to be a time when that doesn’t suck. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t “done his grief work.” That doesn’t mean that he’s in denial or that I’m in denial if 10 years later I still go to text Matt when I see something neat. That’s love. And that’s the way it works.

To hear Megan help a listener find the right words to say to her grieving sister, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.