The Curve of Grief

The Curve of Grief


The grief journey is a psychological process experienced by any individual, team or organisation that is confronted with a loss until they learn to live again in the absence of what they have lost.

It is therefore very enlightening to know the grief curve in order to :

  • Know where to place yourself in the grieving process, as well as teams and organisations.
  • Better manage and integrate resistance and the integration time.
  • Better manage change by accompanying people.

1. The grief curve

  • The grief curve was described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the internationally renowned Swiss-born psychiatrist and thanatologist (1926-2004). Her work provided a way of understanding the psychological process of change, whether minor or major, desired or experienced, that is associated with the loss of something.
  • The curve is made up of a descent and an ascent with 9 stages that do not necessarily follow one another and are described on the following page.
  • Singular approach: Not all stages and not with the same intensity for all. Not the same duration for all. Possible blockage on some steps.

The different steps are :

  1. Shock: leads to a phase of intense consideration and destabilisation.
  2. Denial: Refusal to understand (denial, negation). Especially if the attachment is suddenly and unexpectedly broken (e.g. "This can't be happening to me". "It's impossible, you're wrong")
  3. Anger: Resistance to change (rage, resentment, feelings of injustice, accusation, transfer of responsibility onto others) (e.g. "Why me and not someone else?", "They had no right")
  4. Fear: Bargaining - Resignation (fear for self, others, material fears, money, mobility...). The world appears as a source of insurmountable dangers. (e.g. "What will become of me?" "How will I cope?")
  5. Sadness: Decompensation - Depression (despondency, discouragement, nostalgia). Decisive stage because of the realisation that what has been done, and that there is nothing more to be done.
  6. Acceptance: Forward movement becomes possible. Change of outlook. Looking to the future. (Ex: "Do I want to stay or leave, do I have a choice? "What will I do with this new situation?)
  7. Forgiveness: to oneself (guilt), to the perpetrators of the loss (understanding, justification). (Ex: "It was necessary to restructure")
  8. Renewal and search for meaning: Benefits to the new situation. (e.g. "Thanks to this, I can do new things").
  9. Serenity, growth: Full integration, investment, commitment. The present is more important than the past. Adherence to new projects.

2. The change curve

2.1 Explanation

Adaptation to change follows a precise process and describes a curve, inspired by the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on grief and amended by the discoveries of Jacques Fradin on stress.

Fortunately, we are not often in danger, but forced change is perceived by our brain automatically as a potential danger. Any change involves real losses, the resignation phase is necessary to heal the wounds.

  • If the situation of change is familiar and requires only slight adaptation, most of the time we have learned to put in place effective coping strategies.
  • But when the change is significant, when the situation or destination is unknown, we go through all the stages of stress, until a new equilibrium point is reached. We go through different phases with defined behaviours and emotional states for each.

Depending on the level of change, the passage through these stages may take more or less time. Each individual reacts differently; some stages will be easier for some people to go through than others.

Each time we go through the change curve, we become more empowered and develop new strategies for the next time around.

2.2 Supporting as a manager

Accompanying change means being aware of these phases in order to provide an appropriate response. This means listening sincerely and encouraging others, while reassuring them of their qualities. Once this difficulty has passed, managers must re-mobilise their employees. Highlighting the positive side of things and encouraging people in their actions are good ways to contribute to successful and sustainable change.

The role of the manager in the major phases of change

1. Inform

The initial surprise is a mode of emotional blockage, where we do not understand what is happening to us. The right attitude to help you through this stage is to :

  • Inform without rushing.
  • Answer questions.
  • Listen, let people express their feelings.

This stage requires availability, listening and closeness.

2. Explain, make sense

To generate awareness, it is necessary to :

  • Explain, and indicate the consequences in a factual and educational manner.
  • Give meaning, share the vision.
  • Be firm on what is non-negotiable.
  • Remove obstacles.
  • Reassure.

This stage means communicating a lot and adapting the communication to everyone.

3. Encourage

Your role as a manager is to motivate your employees to try new things, to move towards the desired future state:

  • By reassuring.
  • By encouraging, stimulating and encouraging action.
  • By taking small steps.
  • By celebrating small victories.

4. Recognise and value

To motivate your employees to move forward, to continue experimenting:

  • Recognise and value successes.
  • Reassure them and see failure as a source of progress.
  • Consolidate successes for more change.
  • Anchor new approaches in the company's culture.

Challenges for the manager:

The challenge for you as a manager will be that not all members of your team will be at the same stage of the curve at the same time, which will require you to adapt your management to each one and allow time for this.

The other challenge is maintaining a caring relationship throughout the process and being respectful of the time each stage may take.

Changes with a collective dimension are by nature more complicated to manage, and a good understanding of systemic mechanisms is a notable plus for effective group support.