Four Tasks of Mourning

Back in the 1970s we had grief all figured out thanks to the simple five-stage model that was presented at the turn of the decade by Swiss-American psychologist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Kubler Ross Five Stages of GriefThis tidy new theory seemed to tell us that all we had to do was make it through the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and we’d be fine—we will have made it through grief. Anyone who has experienced loss can tell you, five tidy stages cannot tell the whole story of grief.

Though that model is imperfect it did open up a national dialogue about how we, as individuals and a society, handle grief. In the years since, other theories have emerged. We talked previously about the Dual Process Model that seems to be one of the most accurate explanations of the psychological mechanics of grief, but there are others worth examining.

First published in his 1982 book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, William Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning”, suggest that there are four tasks that one must accomplish before fully adapting to a loss.

  • Worden's Four TasksAccept the reality of the loss. This sounds incredibly base but there are many people who genuinely have a difficult time acknowledging and accepting that someone they love has died. The completion of this task is generally accomplished when the survivor understands that person who died and understands that that person will never return. (That’s some harsh reality there.) Denial of the reality of the loss “most often involves [denial of] either the facts of the loss, the meaning of the loss, or the irreversibility of the loss.” (Worden, 2009)
  • Process the Pain of Grief. This is where the emotional and physical symptoms of grief are experienced. Humans are averted to pain and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Experiencing pain from loss can be further complicated by society’s collective aversion to expressions of grief. The intensity or the pain may vary, but if the pain is pushed aside altogether, Worden suggests that it will manifest in unintended ways by an emotional eruption, depression, et al.
  • Adjust to a world without the deceased. Worden identifies three areas of adjustment that need to be addressed over time:
    1. External Adjustments – how the death affects one’s everyday functioning in the world
    2. Internal Adjustments – how the death affects one’s sense of self
    3. Spiritual Adjustments – how the death affects one’s beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. Worden suggests that one should seek an appropriate place for the dead in their emotional life—a place that will enable them to go on living effectively in the world. This does not mean to detach from the dead, but to find ways to develop continuing bonds throughout the survivor’s life.

Like Kubler-Ross, this theory does suggest a linear pathway through mourning, which is definitely arguable as a format because it implies that there is a universal set of tasks or processes that happen in order, over time, for everyone, but Worden also make accommodation for personal variety in order and timeline.

Grief theory can’t explain everything, but it may bring some insight you can relate to or otherwise shed some light on your grief experience.

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