The Stage Theory and Its Pros and Cons
Stage theories are developed to organize and explain the complex life processes, to make definite predictions in relation to the further development of the process, and to conclude about the expected process’s outcomes. That is why, stage theories are typical for different social and behavioral sciences and disciplines (Rutjens et al., 2013, p. 313).
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Thus, stage theories are developed to explain the processes of the people’s adaptation to various situations as well as the changes in the people’s behaviours, attitudes, and perceptions (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 93).
The reference to the stage theory in order to explain the bereavement process is the comparably new tendency that is why different researchers determine various stages, and there are many critics of the appropriateness of stage theories to be applied to such complex processes as the bereavement process because of the impact of the individual factor (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 92; Maciejewski et al., 2007, p. 718).
That is why, the stage theory as the process of adjustment to the new situation is characterized by such pros as the possibility of adapting to the new life conditions gradually and the possibility of changing the chaotic state into the order; the cons related to the theory are the absence of the single opinion on stages and the influential role of the individual factor which prevents researchers from determining the length and aspects of separate stages.
Stage theories provide people with some patterns of how to act and behave in different situations which are associated with definite changes in the people’s perceptions and attitudes. These theories also provide people with a kind of the necessary plan, as a result, people can feel that they are able control the chaos in their life, and it is possible to predict some changes in the behavior (Rutjens et al., 2013, p. 314).
The group of researchers explain the people’s reference to stage theories with the focus on persons’ intentions to organize the life and processes round them (Rutjens et al., 2013, p. 314).
Today, the process of people’s coping with the loss of a close person is also explained with references to the specific stage theory of grief which describes concrete stages through which the bereaved person usually moves while adapting to the new situation of living without a loved person (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 93). Referring to the widely accepted stage theory of grief, it is possible to discuss the pros of the theory in detail.
The stage theory provides a person with the opportunity to adapt to the changed situation gradually. Thus, the first interpretations of the stage theory included only four stages which were “shock-numbness, yearning-searching, disorganization-despair, and reorganization”, and then, the theory of bereavement was developed into the complex stage theory based on five to seven stages, depending on the researcher’s approach (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 94; Maciejewski et al., 2007, p. 716-717).
According to Dillenburger and Keenan, the gradual process of adjustment to the loss can be explained with references to the concept of a Grief Wheel as the approach to the stage theory because the process of grieving is characterized by the gradual movement from one stages to the others without focusing on lines between them (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 96).
That is why, it is possible to speak about the gradual movement of a person from one stage to the other in order to adapt to the situation effectively.
The bereavement process should be discussed with the help of the theory which is based on explaining the stages of the concrete process, and as a result, the stage theory of grief seems to be the appropriate fundament to explain the aspects of the peoples’ bereavement (Maciejewski et al., 2007, p. 717).
In order to adjust to the loss, a person needs to move through some stages, and this movement illustrates the person’s attempts to overcome the chaos in mind and in life.
The cons associated with the stage theory are the impossibility to state clearly what stages should be included into the process in order to provide a person with the opportunity to adapt to the new situation completely. Referring to the stage theory of grief, it is possible to note that many researchers focus on different grief indicators important to determine the stages of the bereavement process (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 96).
According to Maciejewski and the group of researchers, people experience disbelief, yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance while moving through the stages of grieving (Maciejewski et al., 2007, p. 717-718). However, the next problem is in the fact that all the people move through the stages individually, and this aspect influences the intensity of the people’s feelings and the period during which the stage can be completed.
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Paying attention to such cons of the stage theory, Maciejewski and colleagues develop the research to study how different people move through the stages of grief. The researchers conclude that the individual factor plays the significant role because people are inclined to demonstrate different responses to the traditional or expected stages of the bereavement process.
For instance, different people focus more on yearning and acceptance, but the researchers also state that the sequence of stages proposed in relation to the theory is meaningful for persons (Maciejewski et al., 2007, p. 720). Thus, the stage theory can be discussed as approved with references to the conducted experiments.
Dillenburger and Keenan are inclined to concentrate on the behavioural factor which can be discussed as one of the theory’s cons. The researchers claim that to state whether the stage theory of grief works or not, it is necessary to pay attention to the social context and to the behavioural factor (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 98).
The stage theory provides a person with a plan according to which he or she can adjust to the new situation, however, the process of bereavement is extremely individual, and the movement through stages depends significantly on the individual person’s approach to the problem.
Thus, it is important to shift the focus to the inner world and emotions of the grieving person in order to understand the person’s success in coping with the stages which are not static while depending on the person’s feelings and attitudes (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2005, p. 100).
Referring to the studies conducted by Rutjens and the group of researchers, Maciejewski and colleagues, and by Dillenburger and Keenan, it is possible to note that the stage theory is rather effective to discuss the people’s adjustment to life situations as the complex processes because all the persons in spite of their individual approaches and characteristics are inclined to move through the same stages.
Stages of Grief and How They Relate to the Stage Theory
Those persons who lost their close people can be discussed as involved into the painful bereavement process. This process is divided into several stages according to the feelings and emotions experienced by the bereaved. Today, the commonly known stages of grief are shock and denial, disorganization, volatile reactions, guilt, loss and loneliness, relief, and reestablishment (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 462).
The researchers state that these stages are usually completed by all the persons who lost their close people, but differences in coping with the grief are observed in relation to the stage’s length and aspects on which persons can focus their attention. Thus, it is possible to determine normal and abnormal behaviours associated with the stages of grief which indicate the successfulness of coping with the loss (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463).
From this point, such stages of grief as shock and denial, disorganization, volatile reactions, guilt, loss and loneliness, relief, and reestablishment are directly connected with the idea of the stage theory because these stages are completed in sequence and by many grieving persons.
The first stage is the shock and denial of the fact because even if persons are ready to the death of the loved person or expect the tragic consequences, they are always shocked, and the next reaction is the denial of the death (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463). The bereaved person rejects to accept the reality and to accept the close person’s death because of the intense grief.
Shock and denial are discussed as the normal reactions to the loss because of the necessity to adapt to the new situation during a short period of time. The bereaved tries to escape from the reality with the help of denial as a kind of the psychological protection (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463). That is why, shock and denial as the normal psychological reactions are discussed as the first stage of the bereavement process.
If the bereavement process is discussed with references to the stage theory of grief, the second stage of the process is disorganization. Having coped with shock and denial, a person should complete some formal activities, but the bereaved is usually disorganized, and he cannot perceive the reality appropriately.
Thus, the reality of the daily life becomes strange for the bereaved person who can also lose the meaning in his personal life (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463). As a result, disorganization becomes the next person’s reaction to the loss and the next stage of the adaptation process.
The stage of disorganization ends with moving to the next stage of grief which is volatile reactions. The individual who lost the close person can feel anger, frustration, and helplessness (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463). These destructive feelings become a way to cope with the person’s loss and pain, however, the bereaved needs to express these feelings openly.
That is why, the bereaved person can demonstrate his or her anger in relation to the dead person, to God, to the relatives and friends, and to many other people who are in the person’s social circle (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 464).
The person’s volatile reactions to the situation can be different, ranging from terror to hatred (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 463). However, these reactions are natural, and this stage is significant for the person’s successful completion of all the stages of grief.
The next feeling which determines the stage of the bereavement process is guilt. If volatile reactions such as anger and hatred are directed toward the other persons, the feeling of guilt is the anger which is directed toward the bereaved. This grieving individual starts to condemn oneself because of the close person’s death, and the society often supports the person’s opinion on his own role in the other person’s death.
At this stage, people are inclined to focus on their guilt, and the associated hatred and anger can lead to depression (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 464). That is why, guilt is identified as the separate stage of the bereavement process during which the bereaved focuses on oneself as the guilty person.
One more important stage is loss and loneliness during which the bereaved persons understand what difficulties they experience while living without the close people. Those persons who are at the stage of loss and loneliness experience problems with continuing their social activities because they have no desires to communicate with the other persons or to develop their social life.
The opposite side of this feeling is the attempt to compensate the loss with the help of new contacts and social interactions. Nevertheless, the stage of loss and loneliness cannot be avoided, even if persons try to cope with the extreme feelings of loneliness individually (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 465).
The next stage of the bereavement process is the period of relief which means the first step to the person’s ‘recovery’. Having experienced the feelings of shock, denial, anger, guilt, and loneliness, the person becomes ready to start a new life.
During the stage of relief, the bereaved individuals become to understand that the loss influenced them significantly, and now their negative emotions and feelings are changed with relief (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 466).
In this case, the significance of the stage theory is supported with the fact that a person cannot avoid this or that phase. To feel relief, the person should move through all the bereavement process’s stages, even if they are completed not one by one.
The final stage is reestablishment which follows the stage of relief. At this stage, the bereaved person is ready to continue the life without the loved person (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 466).
It is important to pay attention to the fact that the bereavement process depends on the stage theory of grief because to achieve the final stages of the process, to feel relief, and to become ready to reestablishment, it is necessary to complete all the stages.
In spite of the fact that persons can feel loneliness and guilt at the same time, it is more important for them to experience all the discussed stages in order to complete the whole process (Leming & Dickinson, 2011, p. 466).
People need to move through all the stages of the bereavement process in order to become able to continue the normal life because the focus on the concrete stage cannot be discussed as the normal adaptation to the new situation. As a result, the stages of the bereavement process should be discussed with references to the traditional stage theory of grief.
Dillenburger, K., & Keenan, M. (2005). Bereavement: A D.I.S.C. analysis. Behavior and Social Issues, 14(2), 92-112.
Leming, M., & Dickinson, G. (2011). Understanding dying, death, and bereavement. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Maciejewski, P. K., Zhang, B., Block, S. D., & Prigerson, H. G. (2007). An empirical examination of the stage theory of grief. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 297(7), 716-723. doi:10.1001/jama.297.7.716
Rutjens, B. T., van Harreveld, F., van der Pligt, J., Kreemers, L. M., & Noordewier, M. K. (2013). Steps, stages, and structure: Finding compensatory order in scientific theories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 313-318. doi:10.1037/a0028716