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The DABDA Theory of Coping With Death

DABDA Was Created by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

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Updated October 01, 2009

The DABDA Theory of Coping With Death

Coping with a terminal illness is never easy.

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The way in which an individual copes with tragedy is deeply personal, but there is an accepted model of coping with a terminal illness that many people follow -- DABDA. Developed by the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross -- a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and thanatologist -- DABDA is named for the "five stages of coping" it involves: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

In her famous book On Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross discusses this theory of coping in a linear fashion, meaning a person moves through one stage to reach the next. She later explained that the theory was never meant to be linear nor applied to all persons; the way a person moves through the stages is as unique as they are.

It's important to remember that some people will experience all of the stages, some in order and some not, and other people may only experience a few of the stages or even get stuck in one. It's also interesting to note that the way a person has handled adversity in the past will affect how a diagnosis of terminal illness is handled. For example, a woman who always avoided adversity and used denial to cope with tragedy in the past may find herself stuck in the denial stage of coping for a long time. Similarly, a man who uses anger to deal with difficult situations may find himself unable to move out of the anger stage of coping.

DABDA: Breaking Down the Five Stages of Coping With a Terminal Illness

  1. Denial -- Coping usually begins with the person thinking "No way, not me."
  2. Anger -- "Not me" will usually give way to "Why me?" as the person begins to accept the reality of the illness and becomes angry.
  3. Bargaining -- As anger subsides, or even in it's midst, the person may begin to bargain for more time.
  4. Depression -- When it becomes obvious that bargaining won't work, depression may set it.
  5. Acceptance -- If the person is able to move through one or more of the previous stages, they may be lucky enough to reach the stage of acceptance before death.
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