Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief in Job and Gilgamesh

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Death is a harsh reality that impacts all people in all cultures, including dealing with the loss of friends or family members. Even though cultures believe in different burial practices or afterlives, people follow very similar steps in the stages of grieving. Kübler-Ross developed a structure that generically names the five steps of the grieving process that are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, these steps are generic, not all individuals go through the steps in the same order and not all individuals go through every step.  Kübler-Ross also noted that it was possible for individuals to go “back” and “forward” steps as they move through grief. Kübler-Ross’ stages of grieving can be observed to literature, such as Job from the Christian Bible and Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh during their time of grief.

Job follows the stages of grieving, with some stages more obvious than others. When he finds out that his livelihood and his children have died he immediately tears at his clothes in grief. He seems to have skipped denial and moved into depression, potentially major depressive disorder, then becomes angry and cursing the day he was born, insulting his friends and even asks God to kill him (this can be viewed as either bargaining or depression). The two stages that he expresses most are depression and anger, most likely because the deaths were sudden and he didn’t have time to deny the facts or attempt to bargain with God. Eventually, Job accepts his grief, Johnson suggests in the Journal of Religion of Health, that the “Evidence seems to suggest that as Job’s emotional illness improved, his physical complaints decreased.” This is true in most people and depression can cause physical pain when they are in a depressive state and alleviating the depression can also rid an individual of physical ailments (DSM-IV).  While the process and actions may be slightly different the stages of grieving can be seen in other works of literature as well.

Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh had a similar situation and also went through the stages of Kübler-Ross’s grieving. Gilgamesh is from a very different religion, a polytheistic Babylonian belief system that existed in approximately 2500 BCE (Ancienttexts.org), yet the character still goes through a similar process. When his friend, Enkidu, is killed by the gods for being too powerful, Gilgamesh rents his clothes and cries and goes through a period of depression where he refuses to leave his friend’s body. Once he has come to terms with the depression from Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh realizes that he has been forced to face his own mortality. He denies that he has to die and seeks a magic plant that would allow him to be immortal and bargains with other characters to get it. He tries to convince another character to help him but she says “How long do we build a household? How long do we seal a document?” to prove to Gilgamesh that all things in life have a natural ending (Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet X). When Gilgamesh ultimately fails in his search for immortality he realizes that this advice is true and that since he is a part of the living world, he must accept death.

These two men, Job, and Gilgamesh have similarities in their grief in that they move through some of the stages of the grieving process but the stages that impact them the most are different. Both men go through depression and some form of bargaining but, ultimately, they are given wisdom from other people or God and eventually accept their grief. Job was more expressive of his anger to other people, especially when his wife suggests that he blame God or when his friends suggest that his sins may have caused the deaths. He became sarcastic, blaming, and angry of the other people in his life and this was mixed in with periods of silence and depression. Job reaches out to God for help with the acceptance and eventually finds comfort in religion. Gilgamesh is different from Job because he doesn’t seem to spend as much time being angry at the gods; instead, he goes through a period of depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Gilgamesh’s bargaining can be viewed as his journey to find the plant of immortality because he is trying to manipulate the world to get what he desires. While Job’s depression was reflective in his physical ills, Gilgamesh’s decision to take action and search for the plant may have been the healthier option. The wisdom of the woman he meets on his journey is what helps him accept Enkidu’s death as well as his own eventual death. Even though the men have dealt with death differently, they have both grieved in a healthy manner and have both found a sense of renewed purpose in their own lives. 

Grief is also tied to joy in the grieving process. When reflecting on the loss of a loved one, it is not uncommon to feel moments of joy in good memories and then cry in grief at the loss of them (Ghosh, 2003).  While the reader is not given information on Job’s or Gilgamesh’s thoughts, both weep for their losses. In the article, Weeping and Transformations of Self by Jack Barbalet (2005), he explains that “weeping expresses…emotional realization of transformations of self that include both positive (joyful) and negative (sad) forms” (2005). When Job was weeping, he was mourning the loss, but also the joys, of his children. Memories of teaching them how to walk, for example, may have brought up intense feelings of happiness of going through the experiences he did while also feeling the contrasting feelings of sadness. Gilgamesh may also have gone through a similar experience with Enkidu. Barbalet’s article continues to say that the act of weeping in joy and sadness helps the individual move on from negative emotions because they are reminded of the goodness that the person brought to them.

Kübler-Ross’ research is well-respected in the medical, psychological and sociological fields and the process is generic enough where it can be applied to people from many different backgrounds. There is flexibility in the process too; some stages may be moved or removed since some people may be more prone to depression than anger, for example. This research has made me realize that all people deal with grief and that they may go through the same steps but the actions the individuals take are very different. For Job, he had many physical problems that arose from his grief and Gilgamesh reacted by trying to run from death. Neither response is incorrect or bad, although Job may have benefited from modern interventions, such as counseling or drug treatment.

Kübler-Ross’ stages make sense for individuals who have lost someone to death, divorce or addiction and knowing that grief is a process can be calming for individuals. When things are bad, it is easier to think about grief as a step process- an individual who is angry with everything may find comfort in that they need to move through their anger to get to the other stages and, eventually, acceptance.

References

Barbalet, J. (2005). Weeping and transformations of self. Journal For The Theory Of Social Behaviour, 35(2), 125-141. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2005.00267.x

Ghosh, A. (2003). The greatest sorrow: times of joy recalled in wretchedness. Kenyon Review, 25(3/4), 86-99.

Johnson, F. (2005). A phonological existential analysis to the book of job. Journal of Religion & Health, 44(4), 391-401. doi:10.1007/s10943-005-7178-7