Beyond Dollars and Cents: The Five Stages of Grief

Much of elder law practice revolves around dollars and cents, dealing, for example, with questions of how to save the house to pass onto future generations, how to find alternative sources of payment for nursing home care, or how to avoid estate taxes, to name but a few. However, elder law practice involves much more than that.

In my elder law practice, I counsel clients dealing with significant life changing circumstances. While it is clear that people suffer grief when their spouse, parent, or other loved one dies, it may not occur to some that other events likewise will trigger the grief cycle.

Such circumstances include a spouse or other significant person in one’s life taking up permanent residence in a nursing home, the appointment of a guardian for a dear companion due to the intervention of a third party, or actions taken by close family members who call into question one’s loyalty, such as a groundless challenge to one’s faithfulness as agent under a power of attorney or as trustee under a trust.

In these and similar situations, one suffers a loss not unlike the loss suffered when someone dies, and the typical response to such loss is grief.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who studied cancer patients in the late 1960’s, proposed five stages of grief:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger:Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what is going to happen/has happened.

Kübler-Ross suggests that one necessarily must pass through these various stages of grief before one will find peace with the situation. Having suffered a grievous loss myself, I contend that it is helpful to understand these stages to give one hope for the future.

These stages are not mere labels. The anger one feels can be intense, the depression can be deep and seemingly unending. To recognize that this is a natural response to any significant loss may help one cope with the various stages, understanding that eventually one will learn to accept the situation and once again find inner peace.

Remembering that it is not only the loss brought on by the death of a loved one that causes grief, and that grief may arise in other situations as well will help bring perspective to one’s situation.

There are numerous internet resources that address the grieving process. Listed below are a few web links to assist you in learning more about the grieving process.

Mental Health Information Service