Notes on Grief; A Tribute to my Mother

I am of the opinion that grief is a rather blasé word when it comes to describing the situation it’s most frequently used in the context of: the intense feeling following the death of someone. To be quite fair though, there are very few words, if any, that fully encapsulate the true feeling of grief and the aftermath of loss. There is a void; there is a sinkhole in my life that keeps taking and taking. But there is also calm, there is silence, and there are moments where I feel completely normal. The process of grieving my mother has been difficult; it’s been a challenge, it’s something I have to do, and it’s something that feels entirely wrong. It is not over yet, and it has not been what I was planning on feeling like. 

 I cannot pinpoint when or where exactly I learned about the five stages of grief. They were originally developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in a 1969 book entitled On Death and Dying, and they are as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And just as I am not sure when I learned of these stages, I am not quite sure how I ingrained in my mind that grieving would be a step-by-step checklist similar to those made for assignments in my agenda. That I would feel a clear journey through each stage. I felt like one week I would be angry at the world and the next I would be overcome with waves of depression. At some unknown point in my life, the five stages of grief became something I expected. My expectations have been proven wrong. 

The past month following my mother’s death has been the hardest month I’ve ever had to endure, and it will probably remain so for the rest of my life. Somewhere during that time period, I realized that I was not following the so-called five stages, that I was not going to be angry one week and depressed the next. But who am I to judge a theory that seems, purely off of its infamy, to be fact? I have since learned that the five stages of grief were not created for the living—but for the dead. 

Kübler-Ross wrote her novel after interviewing patients who had been diagnosed with terminal illness. It was about their experience; it was about what it meant to be dying. The origin of the five stages of grief as some concept for those of us that survive them is unbeknownst to me, and it most likely has something to do with my original discovery of the concept. I’m not saying the entire concept that these stages apply to the grieving process of the living is wrong, for as pointed out by Ava McVean B.Sc. at McGill University, “She did write in On Death and Dying that, ‘family members undergo different stages of adjustment similar to the ones described for our patients.’” What I do say, however, is that the concept of grieving a loved one through these stages was not the true intention of the stages I internalized as the “ideal grieving process.” I now understand why the five stages of grief felt so wrong to my experiences; they weren’t meant for me—they were meant for my mother. 

On Death and Dying is a conclusion Kübler-Ross reached after researching experiences with the journey towards passing away. For these patients, death was inevitable; perhaps why acceptance makes sense as a final stage. As McVean goes further to point out, “the Kübler-Ross model of grief was not based on … empirical or systemic investigations.” While a valuable analysis on the human condition when faced with the knowledge you will die, the five stages of grief are not a scientific conclusion. They are the human experience—an experience we will never know until we reach a certain point in our lives. I wish I could ask my mother for her opinions on these stages of grief. She was an advocate for mental health awareness and believed in further research around it, and I believe she would have had some valuable insight on the five stages. She spent the last month of her life meditating, spending time with our family, and coming to terms with the inevitability of her illness. It is my sincere belief she was at peace; she was at the end of her journey with the five stages or without them. 

Most of my perceived notions on the five stages of grief are just that—perceived. I do not know their origin; I do not know why I internalized them so deeply. Somewhere between the origins of Kübler-Ross’ five stages and now, we have decided this is how we must grieve. We’ve created a concept of the “ideal grieving process.” That it must make sense, that it must have a pattern. A desire for pattern and for normal has certainly been a part of my life since she passed, and so it makes sense that I’d want to see, to almost cling to, a pattern through grieving. 

It’s not fair to say that On Death and Dying is entirely incorrect, but it is, at the end of the day, based on experience. I will credit Kübler-Ross’ research to the creation of many of the systems in place for terminally ill patients today, such as hospice and palliative care, as pointed out by Ira Byock MD in his article on the novel for the EKR Foundation. Though some, such as McVean, cite its lack of scientific quality as a potential reason for more of its problems, the book isn’t to be entirely discredited. I’ve merely come to the realization that my perception of the novel is different from Kübler-Ross’ creation.

My relationship with my grief has certainly changed upon discovering the true nature of Kübler-Ross’s work. Following my mother’s diagnosis, I felt like I was preparing for what was going to happen. For the one month she lived with her diagnosis I was stocking up on coping mechanisms, hoarding precious moments, and preparing for facing feelings I knew were on their way. My life kept on moving, but I was in a constant state of fear. The inevitability of her illness was clear, there would be an end. I prepared myself for the five stages, got ready to feel this cycle. I thought about what my life would look like once we knew we had one month, one week, when in reality all I would get to know was four hours. Since her passing, and this discovery, I feel this sense that grief is going to continue to be fluid. That it is a journey I will be experiencing without a guidebook of stages. 

It’s safe to say that amongst the many emotions of the past month there has been a sense that I’m doing something wrong. That I am not grieving in the correct way. The internalization of the five stages of grief has had me searching for which stage to identify each moment to, to link each moment in between and achieve some sort of solace that it is right. That despite everything in my life I can do at least this correctly. I expected to be out of school, I am not. I expected to be spending each day with puffy eyes and paper-soaked pages of attempted coping methods. It is true that some moments are like that but not all of them. I expected to have so much more time to prepare—I did not. My grief is something that I feel so strongly in some moments I feel like I’m being dragged by my emotions and in other moments it fades into the background of my life. Each moment in my day is a different experience of the feeling of grief, each day my past definition of the word is challenged. 

There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past month, that “everyone grieves differently.” It’s a very fair assessment of the situation. Maybe someone is grieving in the perfect linear method of the five stages of grief. Maybe someone is grieving without any of the stages at all. I do not grieve my mother in the same way as my sister, or my father, or my grandmother. I experience grief for her in my own unique way, one that does not follow the checklist I had previously hoped for. I grieve my mother in the moments she’ll miss and the moments I miss having with her. I grieve my mother in the recordings of a childhood nighttime lullaby, the same one I sang to her before I said goodbye to her face for the last time. I grieve my mother every day, and I think I always will.


To my reader, I thank you for taking the time to read this article. It is what I needed to write, what I needed to say, and I am ever grateful for those who listen. To my mother, I miss you and I’ll love you forever.