The Five Stages of Grief

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was born in 1926 as one of a set of triplets.  Her life’s passion came when she worked with refugees during World War II.  During a visit to a death camp, she was surprised to see hundreds of butterflies carved into the walls by those who knew they would soon die.  This led her to become curious about what can be learned about what people experience at the end of life.

Kubler-Ross pursued a career in medicine over her father’s objection and completed her MD at the University of Zurich.  She specialized in psychiatry.

While teaching at the University of Colorado Medical School, she brought a teenage girl to the class who was dying of cancer.  She wanted her students to learn from the teenager.  As the students asked questions about her condition and treatment, the young girl erupted:  “Why aren’t you asking me questions that matter to me?  Don’t you even want to know what it’s like to have no ability to imagine your future?”

Kubler-Ross focused her career on supporting those at the end of their lives.  She became one of the pioneers in hospice care.

Perhaps Kubler-Ross is the hidden hero who proposed the five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  She argued that these five stages apply not only to those facing death but also to their loved ones.  Going back to her experience in the death camp visits when she was young, the butterflies were an expression of the final stage of grief:  acceptance.

Since Kubler-Ross developed her five stages of grief, it has been adopted by many companies to help employees through tough times.  While Kubler-Ross worked with individuals who were dying, companies have found that her model also works for tough times in the business world due to job losses, corporate takeovers, closures, phasing out of products, etc.

Leaders are often known for how they helped others manage grief.  The ability to express empathy is rarely taught in leadership programs, but it is perhaps one of the most important leadership traits.  Presidents of the United States are often best known for helping our country through tough times.  Perhaps one of the best examples comes from Ronald Reagan during our national grief over the Challenger Explosion:  “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives.  We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Hidden heroes often help us understand our own experiences. What they do is draw on observations of the experiences of individuals and develop generalizations of those experiences. They are interpreters of lives.

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“What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose.  All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller

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