The Emotional Stages of Caregiving: Help or Hindrance?

As a psychologist by training, I can poke a little fun at my field of study while still maintaining my respect and dedication to the discipline. Hence my observation after updating an online course on bereavement, which required a study of the literature on grief and loss:

Psychologists are obsessed with theories.

Not that theories are bad; in fact, I’m quite fond of them. I even own a pretty cool reference book called the Dictionary of Theories. Theories provide lenses through which we can better understand the world and our inner experiences.

Yet theories can be counterproductive when they are interpreted (or promoted) as prescriptive instead of descriptive. In other words, theories purport how things may be, but all too often they are assumed to represent how things should be.

Courtesy of NIMH

Case in point: My research on bereavement led me to revisit Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. First introduced in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, her theory is one of the most widely known and thoroughly exploited in both professional and lay circles.

Although the theory was originally developed to describe the emotional stages experienced by a dying person, it has transmuted to apply to those who have experienced a loss, to groups instead of individuals, and yes, to caregivers.

I also found references to at least four other bereavement theories that conceptualized this amorphous process as having three, four, seven, and ten stages.

Help! We are obsessed with theories.

My fear is that caregivers (or anyone exposed to stage theories alleged to help them) will feel they must go through the stages offered to them in a specific way or sequence in order to be successful or to find some semblance of peace with their situation.

Just to explore this a little further, I’ll list Kübler-Ross’s stages here:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

I don’t think I have to elaborate on any of those for clarification. I do think that these five emotional-behavioral states have merit. Those who may be caregivers but don’t call themselves such probably have a little denial bubbling within them. And I’ve certainly worked with caregivers who were angry and/or depressed about their situation.

But are there any caregivers out there who have traversed through the emotional landscape of caregiving in this precise way? Please, don’t feel like you need to say yes.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: Don’t feel like you have to go through a generally-accepted formulaic process to “qualify” as a caregiver. Don’t wonder if something’s wrong with you if you don’t feel everything theorists say you will feel, or if you don’t experience them in the predicted order.

Your world as a caregiver is unique, precious, and yours to evaluate. Use the theories offered to you – in this blog and by other professionals – as hypothetical models only. Take the informational nuggets useful to you and savor them, but don’t worry about fitting the rest into your mental model or into your heart.

I have always trusted caregivers to know themselves better than anyone else. So let’s ponder these theories together and find the common links between caregivers while still celebrating the fact that each of you has your own story, full of meaning and significance.

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