An Obstacle to The 5 Stages of Grief: Emotional Neglect From Childhood

The better we grieve, the better we live.

— Anonymous

I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.

Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.

Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.

Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.

The Five Stages of Grief

  1. Denial: In this first stage, you refuse to accept the reality of a distressing situation. “There’s been some mistake,” or “This is all a bad dream,” you might tell yourself. This stage gives your brain time to prepare itself to begin to consider the painful truth.
  2. Anger: This stage involves becoming angry at the situation, the person who is sick, who died, or who is about to leave, or perhaps the doctor who issued the diagnosis. Your anger is a protective emotion, and essentially sets up a barrier between you and the traumatic truth.
  3. Bargaining: “If you will make this diagnosis not be true, I promise to never smoke again,” you may offer up to your version of a higher power. This phase represents your attempts to absorb the truth while also fighting it off.
  4. Depression: As the truth sinks in, you begin to feel its full impact. This can lead to a brief clinical depression as you absorb, and try to accept your loss.
  5. Acceptance: This final stage represents somewhat of a resolution, where you accept that your life has changed, and are able to begin to focus forward.

In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.

When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief

  1. Makes it Hard to Move Past Denial: It’s only a short jump from denying one’s feelings to using denial as a general coping mechanism. It’s easy for a CEN person who has lost a loved one to end up prolonging his grief by refusing to feel the painful feelings that need to be accepted and processed. Alex, who stays busy to avoid his sadness and loss is a perfect example of that. Over time, avoiding your feelings of loss does nothing to process them. The result: you are stuck.
  2. You Can’t Accept or Work With Your Anger: In phase 2, your anger is there to protect you. But if anger wasn’t allowed from you in your childhood home, you may have great difficulty allowing yourself to be angry as a grieving adult. You may be at risk of instead turn your anger inward at yourself, compounding your feeling of loss with even more pain.
  3. Difficulty Accepting Help and Support: CEN makes you feel guilty or weak for having normal emotional needs. It’s hard for you to ask for help or accept comfort from others even in the best of times. When you’re grieving, there are few things that can help more than the love and support of someone who cares about you.
  4. Depression Phase is Prolonged: With your emotions walled off, your anger directed at yourself, and the people most able to support you kept at bay, you are at great risk for getting stuck in a depression that won’t let go. How can Joanne move forward to the next phase, accept the painful reality of her loss and heal from it when her brain chemicals are thrown out of balance by depression?

The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.

If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.

4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief

  • Open up and talk to someone who can give you comfort. Ask for support and accept it. It will help.
  • Make a point to feel your feelings of grief, even if only for a brief period every day. Think about the one you’ve lost, and cry if you need to.
  • Pay attention to whether you are stuck in anger or depression. Might an anti-depressant give you a kick-start to deal with the genuine sad feelings that are waiting to be processed? Consult a professional, if needed.
  • Start addressing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s important to begin to feel all of your feelings, not just your grief. Just as your grief is blocked in some way, so also is your joy. You need to feel all of your emotions in order to heal and move forward.

When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.

And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:

Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.

― Leo Tolstoy

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to accept and process your emotions see and the book, Running on Empty.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
zonie - January 19, 2017 Reply

Not sure what all the fuss is. No one (and I don’t hear the author of this article) said that the stages of grief are hard and fast. They are a framework, and while Rick is partially correct about the Kubler Ross sentiments.. it’s only a small part of the story. Here’s another part and it’s basically what Dr. Webb said. “In her final book On Grief and Grieving Elizabeth Kubler-Ross comments on how the grief stages were very misunderstood in the three decades between books. She says, “They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. (27)”
She says these stages are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling as a result of various losses in our lives. They are not stops on a linear timeline and not everyone goes through all of them. Here are the Kubler Ross stages of grief: (then they are catalogued as we know them to be.) so the point is… before these were given to the field.. there was no framework with which to approach this foggy process. We all know it’s helpful to feel like you are not alone or unique.. and foremost, these stages did that.. and made things seem a little more management. It gave a “name” to some of the feelings. Let’s not get so nit picky.. that this construct that has been of help to so many.. is trashed. Yes, it’s not perfect.. but it’s been of help. This was a good article.

    zonie - January 19, 2017 Reply

    PS.. the quote I shared above was taken from “Journey Through” and it should close quotes just prior to (then they are catalogued…)

Rick Bissler - January 19, 2017 Reply

The use of the “Stages of Grief” it totally inaccurate. My wife and I are members of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). In a conversation my wife had with Dr. Kubler-Ross, she was most troubled because that is not what her book is about. Here is a quote from her book’s web site: “First, On Death and Dying was never a study of grief and bereavement. It was a discussion of some key emotional reactions to the experience of the dying.”

Faye Lapp - January 18, 2017 Reply

Denial stage my ass. What an insult to intelligence. I have questioned good news in my life but never bad.

    Judy - January 19, 2017 Reply

    I think the denial stage is more than the thought that this cannot have happened. There is an element of unreality that sets in, as if one has been transported to another dimension or is living a nightmare. You know intellectually your loved ones are gone but you keep expecting them to walk into the room at any moment.

      zonie - January 19, 2017 Reply

      Judy, what a great post expanding the concept of denial. I did my master’s paper on denial – and this is so well put.

Millonarios - January 17, 2017 Reply

Hi, Dr. Webb,

Yes, my first thought was the that the Five Stages of Grief have been misrepresented from a book about someone confronting their own death, but it doesn’t really matter. I was notified of my father’s death after a full day and 3500 miles of travel to where he had died at least nine hours earlier. It was only on the tarmac of a different continent that the lies I had been told, that he was very sick and we were going to see him, were not true, and that he was dead. I immediately stated that I did not believe it. I was sixteen. My mother had had our entire family support system at home in on the deception. My sister and I were the last members of the family to know. I wonder if even those at my high school knew that day before I did. Writing this now, after many years, I recognize the damage this lie did and continues to do. Understanding the underlying consequences has been an ordeal. While I am still trying to categorize that event, CEN, emotional abuse, dysfunctional families, reading about the phenomenon of narcissism in a new way, learning about boundaries and how to enforce them, have all helped to clarify my own needs. I thank you, Dr. Webb, for focusing on the idea of CEN. It has added another layer to understanding this. Your comments on this regarding grief have been interesting. Funny, not much is written that I have seen that talks about the impact of emotional compromise and its effects on grief. This is helpful. I appreciate your articles. By the way I receive your newsletter, and the link about this article is incorrect, and connects to a previous post instead.

Tyler - January 16, 2017 Reply

I believe the stages of grief mentioned are aimed at people who have had a comparatively emotionally healthy childhoods and need a structure to cope with their current loss. I believe understanding this structure will help them tremendously.

I also believe that this concept has little relevance to those who have experienced their loss, either physical or emotional, as children before their little brains were fully sealed. In other words the grief that has occupied a part of the brain that regulates breathing, hunger and other survival functions is going to do what it is going to do to ensure all that continues. This dumb brain has no capacity to understand time let alone the stages of grief.

While CBT has proven invaluable to help a person function day to day; tackling this more primitive and its more tenuous hold on our psyches has not been as successful.

I welcome any ideas.

z - January 16, 2017 Reply

The five stages of grief has been debunked so many times by SO MANY researchers.

stop publishing articles that perpetuate the myth of the 5 stages of grief… for goodness sake!

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 16, 2017 Reply

    Grief is not a scientific process, and everyone does it differently. The stages simply offer a way to understand the normal feelings you might be having as you go through it. It’s not set in stone, but emotions don’t work in a set-in-stone way, at all anyway. There is value in giving a framework for understanding grief.

      z - January 17, 2017 Reply

      I respectfully disagree.

      KJK - January 19, 2017 Reply

      While I am not an expert, I can state undoubtedly that I went through all stages of grief during my divorce with denial being one of the most confusing stages. I was blindsided by the divorce and could not even comprehend that it was happening. That is why I think denial is a defense mechanism that lasts until you are able to accept the situation.

      I have seen denial in other people in times of grief. A friend’s son was killed in a car accident a few years back. The days leading up to the funeral, she(the mother) acted like nothing had happened and was her typical cheerful self. I remember seeing her a week after the funeral and she was overcome with grief. It took her a long time to get to the acceptance stage.

MizMac1701 - January 15, 2017 Reply

I am currently grieving a loss. I would like to point out that the 5 Stages are not necessarily linear/sequential; I thought I could proceed through and tick them off as I healed, but I’ve ricocheted from one to the other (except Acceptance). As I read the article, I can definitely identify ways CEN impedes my progress. It’s been six months, and I’m mostly stuck in denial/depression. My family never really dealt with issues constructively, so I was left to sort things out for myself. One would think a person’s family would be a great support, but when it comes to my feelings, I’d rather suppress them because I am met with annoyance and scorn. My family feels I should already be “over it” or that I’m “wallowing” in despair because I like punishing myself. I find that as I grieve, there’s a strong element of shame mixed in. My therapist has encouraged me to “sit with” my emotions and process them, but it’s so hard to learn how as a 37 year-old versus learning as a 7 year-old. I feel things deeply, I’m scared of negative emotions, and I am struggling daily with trying to live with myself, but I find comfort that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

    clement - January 16, 2017 Reply

    You are not alone.. I also find comfort in that . I’m trying to learn to cope with feelings in my sixties rather than when .I was six! Sometimes I can see quite clearly the blocks and can even at times remember the childhood experience when my feelings were invalidated.. amazing stuff but hard .. thoughts are with you MizMac x

      swestey - January 18, 2017 Reply

      Like Clement, I am still trying to process my childhood emotional neglect in my sixties. I figured out that it was childhood emotional neglect when I was in my twenties. Years of counseling and medication have failed to help with it. One brilliant psychologist told me to repeat to myself every night that I have accepted my mother’s negative opinions of myself. Wow…he had to get a Ph.D. to figure that one out?? My mother was given everything she wanted as a child. My father worked his butt off to provide for us. He was raised in a very dysfunctional family. He did not know how a parent was supposed to treat a child. I am still an angry, depressed person because I was raised by a mother who was a total control freak, continually told me how ugly I was, told me how beautiful and popular she was as a child, and constantly told me that all a parent has to provide are food, clothing, and shelter for their children. Children believe what their parents tell them. She cut me down and told me I would fail at anything I wanted to try from the age of 5 on. Never did she hug me or tell me that she loved me. She is still alive (in her 90’s) and is just as bitchy and narcissistic now as she ever was. The irony lies in that I am now her caregiver. Do I give her love? No! It just isn’t there. Why do I live with her? Because I was not able to support myself due to my mental health problems – even though I had a master’s degree. She loves to rub that in. I live in her home, and she pays me $500 a month that she gets from the VA to care for her. The only difference is that I am bitchy right back at her now.

        Jenn - January 19, 2017 Reply

        Swestey, I feel your pain and anger. I too was raised by a woman who was raised to think that she deserved all of the best and that I failed her miserably. I too had a father who worked 3 jobs to keep my mother satisfied financially. I too am now taking care of my mom while working a full time job. My mother has the audacity to charge me to live with her even though I am her main caregiver. My other siblings are bogged down in marriages and relationships and the sister that would help me passed away 6 years ago along with my father 10 years ago. I don’t have an answer. I just wanted you to know that I know what it’s like. I just try to stay positive and keep a smile on my face. I also help my patients at work which has saved my life. I go to a psychiatrist, take an anti-depressant and take good care of myself as I have an autoimmune disease myself. It’s a very difficult life but you are not alone.

    KJK - January 18, 2017 Reply

    I went through a divorce after 19 years of marriage and my stages of grief were not in any specific order and bounced all over the place. It took me nearly 2 years to finally get to the acceptance stage. However, that was now 12 years ago and I have dealt with depression since (never had it before).

    I am quite certain that having two alcoholic parents and absolutely no stability in my childhood has played a big role in my ability to cope with grief. I have also found that I feel guilty a lot for things that I have absolutely no control over.

Leave a Comment: