Taylor Swift Embraces and Normalizes Grief: Understanding the Complexities and Nuances of Loss

Call it the Five Stages of Grief (Taylor’s Version). Last week, ahead of the release of her album The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift shared that sort her old songs into stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “These songs represent making room for more good in your life,” she says in a brief audio message accompanying the final playlist, acceptance. “Making that choice. Because a lot of time when we lose things, we gain things too.”

In the two months since Swift , which comes out April 19, fans have speculated that it will explore themes related to coming to terms with the loss of a long-term relationship. (The pop star revealed the end of her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn last April; she’s now dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.) “She’s doing the same thing with grief that she did with the NFL,” introducing the concept to a new audience, says Jason Holland, a clinical psychologist in Nashville who has researched grief, loss, trauma, and stress. “Grief isn’t a topic that gets talked about a lot—so anything that someone can do to bring more attention to it, and get people thinking about it and talking about it, is a good thing.”

But the “five stages of grief” is a contested concept among psychologists, as not everyone experiences them the same way. We asked experts what they like about the theory—and which limitations and caveats to keep in mind.

Grief is less predictable in reality

The five stages of grief were introduced by in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The theory, born out of her work with terminally ill patients, initially focused on how people grapple with their own mortality. “She was a pioneer at the time,” says Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. “She described what people were telling her, and those descriptions are still accurate. Many people do feel angry; many people do feel depressed.”

Kubler-Ross later expanded her work to apply to people grieving a loved one—and, clearly, it resonated, evolving into a cultural touchstone. The problem, O’Connor says, is that “it became used not as a description, but as a prescription.” People interpreted the stages strictly, assuming that mourners had to pass through each one sequentially. (That thinking has persisted, though in Kubler-Ross wrote shortly before her death in 2004, she noted it was , and that the stages do not have to happen in one particular order.)

Though little research has examined the theory, the studies that do exist offer mixed results. , for example, found that during the two years after someone lost a loved one, their experiences of grief did tend to follow Kubler-Ross’s predicted order. found that the pattern of grieving depended on the circumstances of how someone died, and that grief and acceptance rose and fell in an unpredictable way. “We know now that it is a much more variable path, and that there isn’t an end point where we stop feeling grief,” O’Connor says.

Not everyone goes through all of them

While many people experience some or all of the five stages of grief, others only relate to one—or none. Grief is complex, O’Connor points out, and not a one-size-fits all process. Some people might skip a step, jumping straight from denial to bargaining (when you try to make deals with God or torment yourself with “what if” statements, no matter how irrational). Others will experience depression before they move on to anger. Research suggests that do eventually achieve some form of acceptance, but “it’s like the stock market,” O’Connor says. “It goes up and down.”

Grief hits us in all different ways and at different times, staying with us indefinitely and surging when we least expect it to, says Gina Moffa, a grief therapist in New York City and author of Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go. “The idea that it can be wrapped up in a neat bow and that it has a clear beginning, middle, and end is a real disservice to people going through the grieving process,” she says. “Grief is messy. It’s important to know that there’s no timeline.”

Grief isn’t just emotional

The five-stages theory doesn’t acknowledge the physical symptoms and anxiety that can accompany grief, Moffa points out. People who are bereaved often experience panic attacks, brain fog, sleep issues, a weakened immune system, gut issues, and headaches, among other issues, she says. After her mother died, she landed in the hospital with pancreatitis and a thyroid problem. “This experience of five stages doesn’t account for the fact that grief is a trauma to our bodies and to our nervous system,” she says.

What particularly bothers Moffa is that when some people feel like their experience doesn’t conform to the five stages, they become distressed. “They think they’re doing it wrong,” she says. “When we talk about the five stages of grief, it becomes a ‘right and wrong’ thing. And grief is not something that can be right or wrong.”

A different way of thinking about grief 

Many people who specialize in grief work prefer the , which posits that grieving involves two tasks that can mostly only be handled one at a time: working through the emotions of grief itself—whatever they are and whatever order they come in—and rebuilding a life. The person grieving will oscillate between both modes—at times mourning, and at times setting aside emotions to nurture new relationships or figure out the logistics of a different life without their loved one. “Spending some time coping with the grief, and some time coping with the restoration, is actually a sign of mental health,” O’Connor says. “Being able to put your grief aside for a time so that you can attend to your life is a mentally healthy thing to do.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the five stages of grief. Holland’s clients often bring it up, explaining that it resonates with them. “It’s a simple model that people can understand,” he says. “If you’re in the midst of grief, you’d like to think that there’s some predictable road ahead.” If people feel that the theory fits them, he says, why not talk about it in those terms? “If it gives them hope, and a sense of empowerment, then I think that’s very positive,” he says.

Having a roadmap like the five stages provides a sense of comfort, he believes. Plus, it fits with our idea of a classic story—and Swift, of course, famously loves a good tale. “It’s this idea that we’re battling grief, that we go through this journey where we have to do battle with denial and bargaining and anger and depression, and we come out this renewed person with insight or knowledge we can share with others,” he says. “It fits with the way that we see human struggle.”