Posted by: faithful | September 26, 2007

grief, change and the transformation cycle


Change, Grief and the Transformation Cycle

Betty Krecji
Purdue University Department of Consumer and Family Sciences
Sustainable Sonoma County

Change as Loss

When people view change as loss, they must actually go through a grief process in order to effectively make the change. There are five stages in the grief cycle as identified in the work of Kubler-Ross in 1969.

When people face the loss (or change) of something which they hold to be dear they tend to react in a predictable series of ways as suggested by Kubler Ross which is termed the “Grief Cycle”:

From Kubler-Ross, E (1973)
On Death & Dying, Routledge, London

The first stage is shock and denial. In this stage, people are numb and often deny that a change has even occurred. They blame others and do not recognize the need to make decisions.

Once shock wears off, people enter a stage of anger, frustration, and anxiety. So much energy is placed in negative emotions at this stage that there is no energy to make critical decisions. This is an important part of the grief process, but how the negative emotions are played out should be watched carefully.

The next stage is depression. At this stage, individuals experience an overwhelming sense of “the blues” and a lack of energy. Because of the energy spent in negative emotion in the previous stage, there is no energy at this time to make decisions for oneself. This is a stage where individuals need the help of family and friends.

Once individuals enter the dialogue and bargaining stage of the grief cycle, they are more open to exploring alternatives. At this time they need to gather information and consider options. Frequently, individuals feel a need to tell their story in order to make sense of what has occurred. A good listener can be critical.

The final stage is the acceptance stage. Entering the acceptance stage doesn’t mean individuals necessarily like the change, but rather they are beginning to accept that it has happened and are willing to work it into their lives. At this time, they feel empowered and in control of their life, but things will never be the same. Change has occurred. Unfortunately, individuals do not go through the grief cycle in a neat, step-by-step fashion. Rather, they move back and forth between the various phases. The important thing is to recognize the stages of the grief process as normal and to be prepared for what each stage has in store. The danger lies in “getting stuck” in any one phase, especially the anger or depression phases. If this happens, individuals may need to seek professional help.

Although change is often beyond our control, it is important to remember you are not alone. Open communication and a positive attitude will help everyone involved manage the transition to successfully incorporate change.

In developing our sustainability workshops we have looked at grief and other emotions as they relate to the process of transformation. Together they make up what we call the transformation cycle.The Transformation Cycle integrates the work of several people. Fundamentally it builds upon the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose pioneering work on death and dying developed our understanding of the grief cycle. It also draws upon ideas from William Bridges’ work on transitions and Harrison Owen’s concepts from Open Space, overlaid on the structure of The Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell.

The Transformation Cycle begins with a triggering event, which is called Chaos (also known as a break down or the “Oh No” moment). Even happy events like getting married or getting a new job can trigger grief for a lost identity. What is in jeopardy may be one’s life, one’s identity, one’s relationship, or one’s world view. What follows is grief. Grief can be experienced quite differently by different people, but usually incorporates some of the following emotions: anger, denial, fear, despair, until finally the individual in grief reaches the point of letting go.

Upon letting go, one feels adrift without an anchor while experiencing the Void (also known as The Neutral Zone or mythically, a descent into the Underworld.). Through this uncomfortable and dangerous process, one undergoes fundamental change and eventually reemerges transformed. This point, often called a break through or the “Ah Ha” moment, initiates an ascent characterized by joy, excitement and power as one sees the world with new eyes and new purpose. One reestablishes a sense of order in one’s life until such time as a new type of Chaos strikes again and the cycle repeats.

The Transformation Cycle is a wonderfully complex and rich concept. It has helped us recognize emotional patterns and variations within our community and by so doing, helped us to understand and respect each other as we encounter the various stages of the cycle. It also serves as a reminder that the painful places where we feel stuck are not the only stops on the journey.

We believe this model is useful for understanding both personal and societal change. Transformative change, in contrast to developmental or transitional change, is irreversible. It involves the birth of a new state through death of the old. The new state is not and cannot be known until it takes shape. As our environment transforms, human culture will inevitably transform. While we can not know what the outcome will be, we can hold an intent during the process which can have an impact on the outcome.

with appreciation to Sustainable Sonoma County



  1. I’ve been thinking about this very topic. I think that transitions can be distinguished from storms. Not all transitions are stormy but all storms are transitions. What’s your thinking on this?

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