The Five Scoops of Grief

Recently, a good friend of mine (I’ll call her ‘Carly’) just starting an elite PhD program, posted the following lament on Facebook: ‘School wins and the rest of my life is going away. I’m ready to accept that I need to go through the five stages of grief over this. Which stage allows me to eat a lot of ice cream?’

‘Carly’ is a thoughtful, logical and normally self-assured woman in her mid-twenties. Such a serious inquiry on her part deserved, I felt, an immediate and not flippant response.

‎”’All of them’. With five different justifications, of course.” I told Carly earnestly on her Facebook wall, knowing full well that to be true, as I had once taken a psychology class in college where I had used this exact subject as the basis for a term paper.

She then replied, “I would love to hear your ice cream justifications for all five stages of grief. Especially since right now I can’t recall what the stages are… but I am sure that all of them require ice cream.”

As Carly’s PhD research focuses on the field of public health, I thought this could be useful on both a personal and professional level. I was happy to dig out my old paper, and add-on some updated Internet research to give her a more complete response. The more I read, the more I realized that this material, neglected as it is, is important enough for a wider audience, as the majority of us will, at one time or another, need to grieve via ice cream.

Most of us have at least heard of the Five Stages of Grief; what most don’t know is the real story behind them – the original Five Scoops of Grief.  What most psychology textbooks promote as ‘Kübler-Ross Model’ really began as a study of people and their ice cream eating habits by Edith Keebler-Ross, who began her ground breaking research and development of her grief theories while working at an ice cream shop during college, where she hand-rolled sugar cones. Her initial findings and related research were initially derided as lacking ‘scientific sustenance’ based on ‘questionable statistical models’ of ice cream eaters – and the sticky finger prints she left on many pages of the early drafts.

Following years of more rigorous, academic research, Keebler’s initial Five Scoops study was revised to the more generic, and more flexible for more situations, Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ promoted today in most psychology textbooks and self-help workshops. Here now is recap of that original research.

The Five Ice Cream Scoops of Grief, popularly known by the acronym ICDABDA:

Denial“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” “Incomplete?  I did all the research he asked for!” Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. In this scoop, ice cream is problematic in that most any flavor will remind the griever of someone/something else they are giving up, or have already given up. In the denial scoop, people frequently choose ice cream flavors associated with past romances or other awkward social situations in which ice cream played a prominent role, even if the connection seems illogical. If a past love always ordered combinations you found odd (“I’ll have a triple scoop of Rocky Road, Rainbow Sherbet and Butter Brickle in a cake-cone, please!”) the griever will now order the same combo, even if it has been years since he/she thought of it, or of the old flame.

It is not uncommon as a defense mechanism, even though the griever might find the concoction distasteful. During the denial scoop, it is best for the griever to stick with the basics: Vanilla, Strawberry, or in small doses, off-brand Chocolate Chip. And no toppings during the denial stage. Keep it simple.

Anger“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?” “This research I’m using is crap!” Once in the second scoop, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of this anger, the person is very difficult to care for in group outings due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. For example, when at an ice cream shop and noticing other people indulging in exotic things like seven-scoop sundaes or in a more private setting noting that every member of the group has a different flavored pint than he/she does.

In this scoop, the problem becomes one of volume more than flavor. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s on a Tuesday evening can quickly escalate to a half-gallon of Blue Bell by Friday night, when the anger is only exacerbated by the fact that you are sitting around on a Friday night with nothing but research homework and a half-gallon of Blue-Bell. This anger can manifest itself in different ways: grievers should avoid banana splits, oversized ice cream sandwiches, sundaes, and Eskimo Pies. Especially Eskimo Pies and Dove Bars. (During the anger scoop, wooden sticks are definitely to be avoided for the safety of all concerned.)

Those grieving should stay with only pints or, as a small compromise, feel free to indulge in some light toppings (sprinkles, Maraschino cherry, nuts) – but only one topping per bowl/pint.

Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more hurricane/snow/earthquake days.”; “I will give my life savings if…”  The bargaining scoop involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay what they are grieving. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle that limits chocolate consumption in ice cream, candy and baked goods. It is during the bargaining stage that one can begin to illogically justify, for example, exotic six-scoop/three chocolates (light, dark, hard shell) topping sundaes over a simple bowl full of ice cream, or doubling up on such things as shakes and malts – avoid BOGO ‘specials’.

Flavor wise, in this ice cream stage of grief, you begin to rationalize your combining Dutch Chocolate with Chocolate Espresso with Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudge for example, on the logic that ‘one kind of chocolate is good, three is great’.

Psychologically, the griever is saying, “I understand I will die from the work I am doing on this seemingly worthless project, but if I could just do something to buy more time, or just eat more kinds of chocolate ice cream…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a self-compromise. This often includes substituting Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough for an outright chocolate variety, for example. This  is the ice cream equivalent of saying, “Can we still be friends?” when facing a break-up.

Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially when you begin involving cheaper brands of ice cream, or even the inexplicable ‘ice milk’ or ‘soft serve’ products. This stage hopefully abates before the dreaded ‘frozen yogurt spiral’ kicks in, in which case an immediate, professional intervention is strongly recommended.

Depression“I’m so sad, why bother with anything like footnotes or citations?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point of this research?” “documenting stuff is for losers!’; “I miss my loved ones, any kind of social life I once had, why go on?” “Why do I bother paying for cable anymore, anyway?” “Who gives a rat’s behind about statistical models?” During this, the key fourth scoop, the person begins to understand the certainty of death by overwork from professors and craves doubles: double fudge, double double-scoops, double double-double scoops, etc. – and is primarily focused, once again, on chocolate.

Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors during ice cream times, and spend much of the evening crying and eating every variety of chocolate ice cream available and purchased from all retail locations within a five-minute drive of his/her home. The chocolate obsession process allows the dying-from-research-and-writing person to disconnect from things of love and affection, except for the chocolate.

It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage with any flavor NOT chocolate. Under no circumstances should you even attempt to placate the individual with, say, Neapolitan, or worse – vanilla with chocolate syrup! Stick with real-deal chocolate.

This is an important time for the griever that must be processed. Feeling other-things-besides-chocolate emotions and asking a friend to bring you an ice cream flavor containing partial or no chocolate shows that you have begun to accept the situation.

Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” “What is the due date on that again?”

In this last scoop, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality as a student. This scoop varies according to the person’s very specific situation. People dying of homework and/or overwork by professor can enter this scoop a long time before the people they leave behind in their non-academic life, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief of missing the primary griever. (Or those who have simply flunked out and may be stuck in earlier scoops.)

This acceptance scoop is commonly marked by an ability to occasionally, but oftentimes nervously, eat out at an ice cream shop with friends who have yet to totally abandon you, and who will simply smile and nod in agreement when you order odd combinations like Key Lime Cheesecake and Rum Raisin Ripple or Pomegranate….anything.

Acceptance also means advancing to point where an ice cream shop outing with friends in which you dissolve into tears, thereby watering down your ice cream and having to drink it from the bowl is the exception, rather than the rule. You have reached full acceptance when you can experience such an embarrassing and messy situation, and immediately laugh about it.

And that’s the scoop.

The whole scoop.

Nothing but the scoop.

So help me Ben and Jerry.

Good luck, Carly.*