We’ve all heard them; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The stages of grief Elizabeth Kübler Ross developed through her studies in the 1960s of those who were dying. Without a doubt, Ross influenced and continues to influence our understanding of death and dying.

Eventually Kübler-Ross also applied her research to grief.

In the opening chapter of her book On Grief and Grieving, Kübler Ross in collaboration with co-author David A. Kessler says:

“Our grief is as individual as our lives. The five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—are part of a framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on a linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”

Not stops on a linear timeline

Often in my own journey I’ve been asked by people about the stages of grief. Did I think I was in still in denial? Was I still angry? Had I reached acceptance yet? (Embedded in that last question was always the implication that I might be stuck or worse yet, not grieving in the right way. These stages didn’t really describe my own experience of grief. In fact, sometimes I found the “stages questions” to be downright infuriating. Because they also implied that no matter how many days, weeks, and months or even years it had been—I wasn’t “over it.”

What grief has taught me is that as Kübler-Ross and Kessler suggest, these stages or elements are just a framework for what might be possible in grief. They may be helpful for some—and for others they may feel confining or worse—shame us into thinking that we are “doing it wrong.”

It turns out, there is no one right way to mourn the loss of a loved one. Dr. Alan Wolfelt teaches that those who have experienced a loss carry grief on the inside. And while grief is the internal experience of sorrow, sadness, anger, hurt—mourning is the outward expression. Mourning is the action within active grieving. Mourning may look like tears, angry outbursts, silence, the need for extra rest and self-care. It may look like deeply expressed feelings of love for the person who died. It may look like actions played out in volunteering for hospice, creating or participating in a fundraising event on behalf of an organization that supports others in journeys through cancer or other life-ending experiences. Mourning may look like creative expression in music, poetry, and art making.

In fact, there are many very real, powerful, creative ways to mourn. And as each person moves through their own loss experience they may discover something that supports their specific experience.

The Houston Quilt Show

During my years of living in Texas I often participated in my local quilt shop’s day trip to the Houston Quilt Show. This international event is perhaps the largest collection of quilters, quilts and quilting resources in the country. Attended by thousands from all over the world, the event includes an exhibit featuring award winning quilts. Even though it has been more than ten years since I last attended, I still remember being deeply moved by memorial quilts.
Created in an array of full colors the quilts depicted the lives of loves lost. Some were stunningly tender while others were
powerfully stark. AIDS quilt blocks, cancer deaths and the Twin Towers were among those I remember. Each quilt a creative expression of the loss of a loved one. Each one as individual as the mourner who created it. And, without ever meeting that quilter, I could not say that he or she had done their grieving in an orderly fashion.

In fact, seeing their art, I could only say that the quilters put their fingers to work cutting and stitching and working fabric into a beautiful expression of the ones they loved and lost. In each piece I noticed carefully selected colors; flames of red portraying anger, pale grays that marked sorrow, tears stitched into the backgrounds of scenes expressing the depths of someone’s grief.

Thinking back on these quilts what I saw was that grief and loss and self-expression are all very, very individual. For those fabric artists, there was no one right way to put together their creation just as there was no one right way to mourn the loss the quilt described.

Death in American culture was a taboo subject until Kübler-Ross opened the doors on death, dying and grief. Through her work she created opportunities for people to face their fears about their own or their loved one’s end of life. Her work has been a gift—giving us a starting point of language to describe our experience of grief and death. And from her gift we can continue to discover ways to frame the experience. We can trust that denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance aren’t linear and ARE part of the words we can use when we don’t have words.

Like quilting, grief is a process of fitting the pieces together in our own way, in our own time and in ways the help each of us discover how to live wholeheartedly again after the death of a loved on.