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What are the Stages of Death?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The stages of death usually refer to various stages a dying person undergoes when preparing for death, given adequate time to prepare. These stages also earn the name Kubler-Ross Model, after Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Her late 1960s book, On Death and Dying, described five distinct stages most people will undergo when facing a terminal diagnosis. The model has since been adapted to discuss people mourning the death of someone else or most people in grief situations, and there’s some dispute about how many stages there truly are.

In Kubler-Ross’s definition there are five stages of death:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression/Grief
  5. Acceptance

In denial, a person routinely denies the existence of grief or the existence of a terminal illness. This may be followed by anger, in which a person becomes furious at the fact that such a devastating thing could occur to him or her. Bargaining is a stage in which people hope by behavior to either change a grief situation or evade oncoming death. Grief and depression usually result when the person realizes bargaining has failed. Ultimately, the person comes to accept the death will occur or that a loss has occurred and may be able to help others gain this acceptance too.

It’s a common misconception that a linear progression exists through these stages of death, but this is not necessarily true, especially when the model is applied to grief situations. Moreover, people can experience more than one stage at the same time. Denial and anger could co-exist, or bargaining could fuel depression or grief. Even when a person reaches a final stage “acceptance,” there could certainly be moments of returning to the other stages, depending upon how long the person has to live. Humans are complicated beings, and they are certainly capable of more than one emotional response, and even of holding opposite emotions concurrently.

Though there has been some quibbling over the years about whether more stages exist, Kubler-Ross’ model does tend to stand up well in psychological analysis of dying and grief. It is mistakenly assumed that such stages are only experienced by the dying or those who have suffered great loss. This is clearly not true, and it’s easy to see these stages in operation for people who have suffered small changes or even in kids who’ve lost a pet or a beloved stuffed animal. Some have suggested that the phrase "stages of death" should really be called "stages of grief," since most people suffering a loss experience these stages in small or large part.

Many are familiar with the stages, but again it must be stressed they are not linear for most people, especially those experiencing a tremendous loss. In fact, familiarity with the stages can create a problem when people are grieving because they may become anxious, angry or depressed that they can’t seem to progress into a different stage or reach the final one, acceptance. As with most things, grief takes time, thought, and process, and these stages are merely models of the different emotions that may occur and may take a long time to fully resolve.

It should also be understood that the last stage, acceptance, does not mean all grief is gone. It may have progressed to a level in which a person can resume most aspects of life, but hurt can continue to exist. No parent, for instance, ever fully stops grieving the death of a child, but he or she may learn to accept it and compartmentalize that grief to participate more fully in life. These stages don’t mean that at the end of them grief or pain ends, but the person may have learned to deal with this pain in more complex ways.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Pimiento — On Jul 28, 2010

@wecallherana - I agree as well with your thought on a sixth addition to this list clarifying the stages of death and dying. I think guilt effects many people in both aspects. With dying, it could be what that person didn't do or didn't do right, you know? And with the person who is left behind they could feel guilt that they didn't help the dying person adequately enough or can feel guilt over things like the last thing they said or did together.

By wecallherana — On Jul 28, 2010

@leiliahrune - The stages of grieving can become very difficult and often times people need someone else to lean on. This applies to both the dying process and the damage the loss of a loved one leaves behind with those still living. I definitely think that another good one to add to this might be guilt.

By leiliahrune — On Jul 28, 2010

This is such an interesting article on the stages of death. I like how it addresses that these stages apply not only to death, but also to the grief that follows with those that are left behind or will be left behind. Dealing with grief and loss is a very difficult thing and if you identify these stages before you go through a bad situation, it can sometimes help to be able to identify where you are as far as progress goes.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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