Stages and Concepts for Grief: Is One Way Better Than Another?

The stages of grief and concepts that have evolved, especially in relation to high conflict divorce and parental alienation.


There is no one-way to grieve.  It is an eclectic process that could follow any one of several venues and/or all of them.  There is no right or wrong way, only the way that works in a positive move forward for you.  In this article, we will try to apply the issue of bereavement and grief to Parental Alienation and the loss of once healthy relationships for everyone involved.

One of the many theories about the grieving process is based upon the Kübler-Ross Model.  This models uses 5 stages or phases that a person might go through when experiencing a loss or tragic event.  The Kübler-Ross model or the Five Stages, is often referred to as DABDA, which stands for Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  Though this model was originally designed for explaining the grieving process involved in death, as victims of Parental Alienation we actually experience a living death of our children.   They are physically and emotionally dead to us, but yet still living in this world.  For the targeted parent and even the child, we are stuck grieving a loss that is only partial.  This same model can be applied to the alienators, who are stuck in the grieving process over the loss of their marriage and relationship.

Below are the stages of the Kübler-Ross model based on someone with terminal cancer. Where the word death is, try substituting the word divorce in and see if it feels and sounds like what you, your ex and children are going through.  Try to figure out what stage of this model you fit into, as well as your children and ex.  Also, be aware that the order of these stages is NOT definitive and can happen in almost any sequence.

Kübler-Ross Model

1. Denial — "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death (divorce, loss of my children/other parent).

2. Anger — "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; '"Who is to blame?"
Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy.  Or in divorce the rage, hatred and anger over loosing control of the relationship.

3. Bargaining — "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death (divorce, loss of my children/other parent).   Usually, the negotiation for an extended life (relationship) is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die (be divorced, may loose my relationship with my kids/other parent), but if I could just do something to buy more time..."

4. Depression — "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die (be divorced, loose my relationship with my children/other parent)... What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
During the fourth stage, the dying (aggrieved) person begins to understand the certainty of death (divorce/loss). Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying (divorced/targeted parent/targeted child) person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

5. Acceptance — "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with her/his mortality or that of a loved one (or lost relationship).

Kübler-Ross, E. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd, ISBN 0743263448

After this version about grief was published by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross,  George Bonanno did further research that did NOT agree with Kübler-Ross.  Bonanno, a bereavement and trauma expert, believes in patterns of grief.   One of those patterns is persistent resilience.  Or much what I talk about when I say moving forward in a positive way.  He also expressed a strong faith that laughter was more important to healing than crying.  We can all agree that when we are laughing, we are letting go and feel good.  So again, in my eclectic approach to grief, I think that laughter could very well be incorporated in the healing process.

Though most of Bonanno’s  experience shows people grieving using resilience, he also saw two other patterns of importance.  One he termed “prolonged grief” and was based on the inability by people to move forward.  He says people who experience prolonged grief, “struggle for years, yearning and pining for the lost loved one. They never seem to get any better. For them, grief is one long horrible experience and it only seems to get worse over time.”  Without a doubt, we can see how this is true with most, if not all alienators.

The other pattern he recognized, he named “recovery” pattern.  These individuals grieved for much shorter times but at most only a year.  Then they would start to restore themselves to their original personas, and from all outward appearances seemed to be back on track.  But underneath, they still felt pain and tremendous loss and thus never completely get to the resilience level of the bereavement process.

(Bonanno, George.  2009, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thriving-in-the-face-trauma/200910/grief-does-not-come-in-stages-and-its-not-the-same-everyone)

Next in this eclectic view comes the finding of the Grief Recovery Institute started by James W. James after the death of his own 3-year old son.  James, in coordination with Russell P. Friedman, grew the Grief Recovery Institute into a huge non-profit with over 2500 centers.  He felt the terminology and concepts of Kubler-Ross were not accurate and thus reinterpreted the 5 stages as the following:

  1. Denial
    1. Disbelief, Shock, Numbness was a more appropriate feeling than denial.
    2. Anger
      1. He felt this was not a universal feeling as not all deaths are the same, such as someone finally dying after suffering from a long disease or someone who was killed by a drunk driver.  Yes, there is anger at the disease or the drunk driver but he did not believe this was a stage.
      2. Bargaining
        1. Yearning for their loved one instead.
        2. Depression
          1. He believed that though the following list were symptoms of grievers as well as symptoms for clinical depression and that this did not mean a person was depressed.

                                               i.     Inability to concentrate

                                              ii.     Disturbance of sleeping patterns

                                            iii.     Upheaval of eating patterns

                                            iv.     Roller coaster of emotions

                                              v.     Lack of energy

  1. Acceptance
    1. Was relative to the person and event and required someone to admit that it was over and the person gone.

Friedman, Russell and James, John. The Myth Of the Stages of Dying, Death and Grief, http://www.grief-recovery.com/Articles/Myth%20of%20Stages.pdf, Grief Recovery Institute

We can all see how these ideas above can work both ways for all of us.  And it seems that there is no one right or wrong answer about how one handles it.  It is more about what we go through and if that process is a positive one for us or a negative one that needs to be attended to.

When it came to the children’s grief, VNA or Visiting Nurses Association wanted to focus on how educators could assist children with their grief.  They based their finding on age appropriateness of responses.  The Grief Institute compiled this information and came up with a booklet on the subject of grief related to death and the affects on children.  Again, change the words death to Divorce and I think we can see how this applies in our children’s cases.

Child Development and Possible Reactions to Death (Divorce)

Age Range (3-5 years old)

Concepts of Death(Divorce)

  • It is temporary and reversible
  • Death/divorce is mixed up with sleep and trips
  • May wonder what the deceased/missing are doing
  • They will never die
  • Sees death(divorce) as special, but not why
  • Death (Divorce) occurs when something bad is done


  • Cranky (feelings are acted out in play)
  • Confused about changes
  • Angry and scared
  • Withdrawn


  • May be interested in dead (divorced) things
  • Cry
  • Fight
  • Act as if death (divorce) never occurred

Age Range (6-9 years old)

Concepts of Death (Divorce)

  • Views death (divorce) as real, though real is distant
  • Begins to understand that death (divorce) is irreversible
  • Realizes everyone, including self, will die (Divorce/have family problems) someday
  • A spirit gets you when you die (divorce) because you are too slow to get away
  • Who will care for them if a parent dies (divorces)?
  • Asks questions about the biological processes of death (divorce)
  • Magical thinking can still overcome death (divorce)


  • Anxiety
  • Sad
  • Confused about changes
  • Withdrawn
  • Angry
  • Scared
  • Moody


  • Able to articulate their feelings and thoughts more clearly
  • Older children may revert to younger behaviors
  • May seek honest, simple answers about situation
  • Act as if nothing happened
  • Behave aggressively
  • Become withdrawn
  • Experience nightmares
  • Lack concentration
  • Decline in grades
  • Try to control body as they cannot control external environment (may make self vomit to get the “bad” out of belly)

Age Range (9-12 years old)

Concepts of death (divorce)

  • Their words or actions caused death (divorce)
  • Death (divorce) may happen again
  • Who will take care of him/her if parents die (divorce).
  • Sees death (divorce) as irreversible
  • Can tell difference between living and non-living , ((divorce and married)
  • More adult in thoughts, but still has child-like beliefs


  • May internalize anger or sadness
  • Depression
  • May have preoccupation with the deceased (divorced)
  • Guilty
  • Scared
  • Confused
  • Vulnerable


  • May revert to younger aged behaviors •
  • Become protective of remaining parent
  • Interest in rituals at death (divorce) (funerals, wakes, etc...) •
  • May play act these rituals
  • Act as if it never happened
  • Behave aggressively
  • Lack concentration
  • Decline in grades

Age Range (13 years and Older)


  • Can joke about death (divorce)
  • Their actions and words caused death (divorce)
  • Weakness if they show their feelings
  • More typical of adult conception of death (divorce)
  • Able to look toward the future without parent
  • Able to comprehend permanence of death (divorce)
  • Guilt in their own growth and development when faced


  • Adolescent vulnerability is magnified
  • Isolated
  • Worried
  • Abandoned
  • Scared
  • Anxious
  • Lonely
  • Confusion around need for growth vs. regression


  • Delay grief until they feel it is a safe time
  • Desire to participate in rituals
  • Engage in risk taking behaviors
  • Display dramatic emotional responses
  • Expresses grief more with peers than adults
  • Has common adult reactions, (fatigue, depression, somatic complaints)
  • May seek relief through substance abuse

VNA Hospice Care, When Children Grieve: How Educators Can Help. http://www.hospicecarema.org/atf/cf/%7B503349D3-99A9-40CD-A8AE-CAAAD384BCAD%7D/Griefbooklet.pdf

All of this information is just another step in the process for us to all understand the different stages or phases that we go through when processing a loss, such as death or alienation.  Processing things in a way that is positive for us and produces happy, healthy and successful end results for us, is what is important. How we got there is not as important as it is different for everyone.

So how can we apply all of this to Parental Alienation and understanding why and what is going on?  Most alienators are stuck in the stage of grief called anger.  They are so filled with hatred, anger and rage at the other parent for not staying in the marriage that they literally are stuck and cannot move forward.  Instead of compartmentalizing and realizing that their anger is their issue, they reach across the boundaries and borders of parent child relationships and perpetrate their hurt and grief onto the children and through the children to the other parent .  This is NOT a positive move forward for them or the children.  But it might also explain the responses that we see in both the children and the ex-spouses.

If we can see the initial problem or trigger for the Alienator, i.e. loss and inability to complete the grieving process, or just not having control anymore, then maybe we can better protect the children and targeted spouse with proper correction/direction for the alienating spouse.  In other words, we find a proper method of helping the Alienator to move forward in their lives by recognizing their part and inability to let go and move on.  This in turn trickles down to their treatment of the children and the targeted parent, which in turn, then stops Parental Alienation.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

An Honest Observation June 13, 2013 at 11:47 PM
A parent who breaks up their marriage and feels the deep need to control their child's mind is not a balanced parent. They have no right to drag their innocent children into their deep and dark world of anger, bitterness and hatred. The alienator needs extensive therapy to end the child abuse they bring to their child's life.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »