Many writers—mainstream as well as genre, but especially genre—use Kübler-Ross’s concept of the five psychological stages as a boilerplate to deal with their characters’ personal grief and tragedy—i.e., Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
Somehow, I also always felt that these stages were a given. The concept has become so deeply ingrained in our cultural memory cores that we even forgot how recent it actually is. As it turns out, it might be a story after all that we tell ourselves, as the pattern-seeking animals that we are.
There are some caveats, though, on both sides.
On the one hand, Kübler-Ross said she hadn’t meant these stages to be a “linear and predictable progression,” but rather a reflection of how people cope with personal grief. (That can be disputed, though, based on how she originally presented her findings.) On the other hand, no model so far exists that explains or predicts these stages, and the empirical evidence is very thin. (But that doesn’t mean that such a model could not be found in the future, or that more evidence could come in over time to support a stage-based model.)
Now, should we, as fiction writers, scrub the five stages of grief from our boilerplate collections?
Again, there are caveats on both sides.
On the one hand, even if there’s scant scientific evidence for these stages, they ring true in the sense of “narrative truths”—they’re plausible, easily accessible, and easily understood. (We use such “narrative truths” all the time; think about journey-based character development arcs like the Hero’s Journey). So there’s no reason to shun their use as long as grief isn’t used as a major motif in the story. But when grief happens to be a major motif, or even the central theme, then I think some boilerplate spring-cleaning should be in order. Then, we should think about how that specific character would react in that specific situation, make things more interesting and more complex, and give readers some insights into human nature they didn’t already have.