Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night With new epidemics from SARS to H1N1 to Ebola sprouting every few years – a disturbing and dangerous rate – and chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and obesity taking more lives than ever before, it seems that the universe will not stop at finding new, cruel ways of taking away the lives of our loved ones. After all, where there is life, there will always be death. With death, then, always comes the grief of those still living. Thus, our understanding of loss and grief is not just significant, but essential to the wellbeing of societies around the world. Studying grief through conversations with her terminally ill patients, Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross suggested her famous five-stage model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. While the Kübler-Ross Model is widely applied, there is great controversy as to whether that these “stages” of grief actually exist. Modern psychological experiments and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a comedy that features three characters each grieving the loss of a family member, demonstrate that the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief is fundamentally flawed because it cannot be generalized that all people experience grief in the same way.
Such a generalization would ignore the fact that individuals may experience very different states of mind while in grief. A professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, Charles A. Corr stresses the “individuality” of grief symptoms, emphasizing that how people act in grief depends on their “tasks and needs” (Jennings). Furthermore, George Bonanno, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University, conducted research on thousands of subjects over two decades, a sample large enough to indicate that “no stages of grief” can conclusively describe how people psychologically react to loss (“Traditional and Contemporary Views Toward Stages of Grief.”)
The differing ways in which characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night react to loss further confirm Bonanno’s and Corr’s beliefs. Viola, the protagonist of Twelfth Night, and Olivia, the Countess of Illyria, are both exposed to the same situation, the loss of a brother and father, but they react in distinct ways. Wondering if “perchance” (I.ii.7) her brother “is not drown’d” (I.ii.7), Viola adopts a more hopeful and positive attitude while grieving for her brother. After this denial stage, Viola does not experience any of the other stages of grief as she quickly gets over her brother and wonders about “this country” (I.ii.22) she has been washed upon.
On the other hand, Olivia who similarly suffers the recent loss of her brother, mainly experiences the dark depression stage of grief. Mourning for her brother, Olivia declares that for seven years, she will “water once a-day her chamber round/With eye-offending brine” (I,i,31-32) a dramatic decision that emphasizes her sorrow and depression. Adrienne L. Eastwood, a professor at San Jose State University, similarly notes that Olivia engages in “excessive grief and mourning,” which juxtaposes with Viola’s abrupt mourning for her twin brother, Sebastian. Neither Viola nor Olivia experiences all five stages of grief, confirming that the Kübler-Ross Model is, to some extent, flawed. Furthermore, the contrast between Shakespeare’s portrayals of grief illustrates that Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief overlooks the wide range of psychological and emotional responses that different people may exhibit.
Not only does the “stage” theory of grief fail to address psychological differences between people, it also neglects how social environments affect grief patterns. According to Stanford University News Service’s article, "Recovery from Grief Requires More Than Grieving, Psychologist Finds", psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that people who “focused on themselves,” and established “introspective rumination” were more likely to experience the depression stage of grief. “Talking to other people” or immersing oneself in a positive environment reduced the risk of depression significantly. Nolen-Hoeksema’s research illustrates that personal and social surroundings can easily affect whether one experiences certain stages of grief, particularly depression. Because grief symptoms vary with environments, the “stage” theory does not sufficiently describe grief as an emotion that all people, no matter their backgrounds or social tendencies, feel.
By contrasting the social backgrounds of Olivia and Viola, Shakespeare highlights Kübler-Ross’s inadequate consideration of social environments. Washed upon shore in an unfamiliar land, Viola is forced to fend for herself and face the challenges of acting as a man. Because of these circumstances, Viola has little choice but to socialize with new people everyday, from Orsino to Valentine to Olivia. Consistent with Nolen-Hoeksema’s research claims that “talking to other people” prevents depression symptoms caused by grief, Viola does not reach the depression stage in the play. Furthermore, given that Viola immerses herself in such an intimate, passionate, and affectionate setting, there seems to be no wonder why Viola never reached depression. Thus, Viola illustrates that social setting may play as an important factor in grief, so much so that one may skip a so-called “stage” completely due to their surroundings. On the other hand, Olivia’s secluded social environment and position of authority keeps her from talking to other people, thus allowing her to mope around and drown in sadness. As the Countess of Illyria, she can deny any visit; even messengers from the Duke of Illyria “shall not speak with” (I, v, 145) her. Olivia’s private and secluded social setting probably exacerbates her depressive state, demonstrating that environment can greatly affect grief. The “stage” theory does not take into account that social environments can greatly alter one’s grief and may even provoke or curb a certain stage. Because people from various social scenes may have very different feelings of grief, grief holds an essence of individuality that the “stage” theory does not adequately address.
One notable exception to such individuality is twin loss, or the death of one twin in a pair. Although Bonanno states that no one grieves in “the same way,” Psychology Today explains that support groups like Twinless Twins capitalize on that “immediate connection” between bereaved twins and their similar experiences of grief. Nancy L. Segal, director of the Twin Studies Center at California State Univesity, presents research studies on Psychology Today that identify general trends on and similarities between how people cope with loss of a twin, such as generally “greater grief than the loss of any other relative” and depression. These shared feelings and grieving processes suggest that different people can, at times, experience grief in the same way, a situation in which grief could potentially be divided into distinct “stages”.
These similarities and shared feelings of grief for bereaved twins, however, do not seem to apply to Viola and Sebastian, who, in Twelfth Night, both believe the other to have drowned. Olivia and Sebastian are biologically similar due to their shared prenatal environment, which is confirmed by comments that Olivia “much resembled” (II, ii, 24-25) Sebastian. Theoretically, their reactions to twin loss should be even more similar to each other than that of two bereaved strangers who meet through Twinless Twins. However, despite this biological similarity, Viola and Sebastian do not exhibit the same stages of grief. In contrast to Viola’s state of denial, Sebastian fits in the depression stage. Explaining that his twin sister has drowned in “salt water” (II, ii, 29), and his plans to “drown her remembrance again with more” (II, ii, 30-31), Sebastian emphasizes his sadness and creates a sorrowful tone. Interestingly enough, Sebastian’s dramatic response to loss much resembles that of Olivia, who also swears to “water once a day her chamber round with eye-offending brine” (I, ii, 31-32). Despite having biology and twin loss bereavement in common, Viola and Sebastian experience different “stages” of grief. Thus, neither common twin loss experiences nor common biology dictates grief patterns. As Bonanno states, “no two people grieve in the same way,” and the same applies even for twins. Thus, the “stages” model is inadequate to describe an emotion so individualized and personal that it transcends the connection between twins.
Analyses of psychological, social, and biological factors of grief demonstrate that the Kübler-Ross “stage” model cannot truly define grief. Psychology and social settings both can greatly affect one’s emotional state and wellbeing when suffering from bereavement. Since psychology and social environment change with individuals, grief is different for everyone and no “stages” can be defined to encompass this diversity. Although studies twin loss is one case where different people may experience grief in a similar way, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night illustrates that neither common twin loss experiences nor common biology necessarily cause common grief symptoms. What is important now is to remove the Kübler-Ross 5 Stages Model from common practice because it insufficiently describes the complexity of grief and could provide grief-stricken patients with a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, if your doctor announces that you will be depressed soon, would you not expect yourself to become depressed? Perhaps instead of using rigid “stages” to inform people of their wounds, we should treat our patients with the care, the love, and the respect that they need to truly heal.
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