Writing Tips
3 min read

How to use the Kubler-Ross stages for managing change/grief in your story

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Understanding human emotion is a fundamental skill in writing believable characters and gripping storylines. One useful tool for delving into the depths of human emotion is the Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as the Five Stages of Grief.

The rundown on the Kübler-Ross model

The Kübler-Ross model was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, originally aimed at helping people deal with the news of their impending death. But since then, it has been widely applied to many forms of personal loss and change. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.


Imagine your protagonist has just been fired from his job. Denial is the first reaction. It's the 'you're joking, right?' stage. The character refuses to believe what has happened. They might tell themselves, 'This can't be happening to me. There's been a mistake.' Denial can be protective, allowing the character to absorb the shock slowly.


Ah, anger. Everyone's least favourite house guest. Once the reality sets in, the character can become angry. This might be directed at others – perhaps the boss who fired them, or themselves for not seeing it coming. The words 'It's not fair!' might come up rather a lot.


Next, we move into the 'if only' phase. Your character might start making promises to a higher power, to themselves or to others in an attempt to reverse or lessen the pain of the situation. 'If only I'd worked harder. If only I'd been nicer to the boss.'


Then, depression hits. It's the quiet, internal stage where the character realises the reality of the situation and its inevitability. They might withdraw, become silent, and spend a lot of time alone, feeling overwhelmed and defeated.


Finally, acceptance makes its grand entrance. This doesn't necessarily mean they're OK with what happened, but they've come to understand that it's real and it can't be changed. They start planning how to move on.

Using the Kübler-Ross model in your story

Weaving these stages into your story can give your characters depth and make their reactions more believable. Don't think of this model as a strict structure; rather it's a way to explore your characters' emotional journeys thoughtfully and thoroughly. The stages can also be shuffled, skipped, or repeated.

It's important to note that the Kübler-Ross model isn't exclusive to the loss of life or a job. In fact, the beauty of it lies in its versatility. It can be applied to a vast spectrum of personal losses or changes. Here are a few more examples that you, as a storyteller, can explore using the Kübler-Ross stages:

Love lost

Your character's romantic relationship ends abruptly, catching them completely off-guard. The stages of grief can depict their journey from disbelief ('This isn't happening!') to acceptance ('Time for a fresh start').


The character discovers they've been betrayed by a close friend. They might deny it initially, unable to believe their friend could do such a thing. As they come to terms with it, they might go through anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.

Life-altering injury or illness

A character could suffer from an injury or illness that changes their life significantly. Maybe an athlete breaks a leg and can no longer participate in their beloved sport. Or a musician loses their hearing. The stages of grief can add depth to the character's journey as they adapt to their new reality.

The ageing process

As characters age, they might grieve their lost youth, vitality, or opportunities. The Kübler-Ross model can illustrate this emotional journey, providing a poignant exploration of the inevitable process of growing old.

End of an era

Characters might go through these stages in response to major life changes such as retirement, children leaving home, or even the end of a favourite TV series (who among us didn't grieve the end of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones?).

Loss of a dream

A character might have to let go of a long-held dream or ambition. Maybe they always wanted to become a ballet dancer, but for whatever reason, that dream is now impossible. They could journey through the Kübler-Ross stages as they grieve this loss and perhaps discover a new passion.

Environmental change

If your character is deeply connected to their environment – maybe they're an environmental activist, or they've always lived in the same town – then a significant change to this environment, such as a natural disaster or urbanisation, can trigger the stages of grief.

Remember, these stages can be experienced by any character in your story, not just your main character. The Kübler-Ross model can provide a roadmap for your characters as they navigate through the complex web of their emotional responses, making your stories richer and more engaging.

Taking it to the page

Here are a few more tips on how you can incorporate this model into your own story:

  • Create conflicting situations: Use the stages to create conflict within your characters, between characters, or between a character and their environment.
  • Explore character development: The stages can be an excellent way to demonstrate character development, showing how your character changes in response to life's ups and downs.
  • Add more depth: The stages can help add emotional depth to your story, making it more relatable to readers who have experienced similar situations.
  • Throw in some unpredictability: Remember, not everyone goes through these stages in a linear manner, or at all. Use this to keep your readers guessing.

A brave new world of storytelling

The Kübler-Ross model is a powerful tool for understanding how people deal with grief and change. By incorporating it into your storytelling, you can bring your characters to life, making them more believable, relatable and compelling.