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The Four Tasks of Mourning

written by Karen Field



j william wordenGrief is a natural response to loss that affects us all at various times in our lives, when we lose someone or something that has been important to us. William Worden (right) in his groundbreaking work on grief identified four tasks that need to be attended to following a loss, in order to pass through the grieving process. They can be applied to the adjustment needed following any loss that is significant to you. Whether it is the death of someone important, the end of a relationship, the loss of your job, your health, a pet, your home, or even an ideal that has been shattered, attending to each of these tasks will help you to re-engage with life and find new satisfaction and fulfillment.


1.  To accept the reality of the loss

Accepting all aspects of what has been lost is an essential step in resolving your grief. However, fully accepting the reality of any part of the loss will trigger the associated emotional pain. Hence, it is normal for people to minimise the meaning of the loss as a way of buffering themselves from the pain. This can help you to complete necessary practical tasks, and come to terms with the loss in a manageable way. When people become stuck in grief, perhaps feeling trapped in obsessive thoughts about the relationship, or feelings of bitterness and resentment, it is often because all aspects of what was lost have not become apparent to the grieving person.


2.  To experience the pain of the loss

After a loss it is necessary to go through the pain of grief in order to get the grief work done. How long this takes will depend on the nature of the loss, your previous life experience, and how much time and support you have to simply be with your feelings (which can be both debilitating and confusing). Oftentimes, accepting the reality and experiencing the pain of the loss take the grieving person a lot longer than those around them expect. In this case friends and family might try too early to “cheer you up”, particularly if they feel inadequate or bored. It is important to seek the support of those people who can cope with your grief, and shelter yourself from those who aren’t able to be helpful.


3.  To adjust to the new environment

Depending on its nature, your loss will demand adjustments on many different levels - physical, emotional, sexual, financial, practical, spiritual. You may now have to do many activities alone. Your home may now seem too big/quiet/empty. Your role in life may have been taken from you. Your sense of identity may have been shattered. You may have to develop new friends. You may have to do tasks that were previously taken care of and develop new skills with which to do them. You may have to shift location which brings many additional adjustments. Your body may be ravaged by the loss of touch and sex. You may be experiencing a significant change in your financial circumstances. You might have to seek employment …

Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health PractitionerThe list of adjustments required by your loss may be very long, seem like they all need doing at once, take you way out of your comfort zone, feel impossible to achieve, and consequently be the focus of your energy for a long time. Go easy on yourself as you grapple with making the necessary changes. While some changes will be annoying or unfamiliar, others will carry with them so much significance that you may find yourself not wanting to accomplish them. Particularly meaningful changes are likely to arouse thoughts and feelings which take you back to Tasks 1 & 2.


4.  To withdraw energy from what was lost and reinvest it elsewhere

This is a continuation of the adjustments required in Task 3. However rather than simply reacting to what the loss is demanding, you are now actively seeking new people/jobs/things/experiences to add to your life and bring a different kind of pleasure or fulfillment. For some people this can be the most difficult task of grieving as it may arouse feelings of guilt, disloyalty, and fear. You may find yourself again revisiting Tasks 1 & 2, particularly if you have lost something that can never be replaced, like a family member or some aspect of your health.


Are you stuck in grief?

Children and Grief: When a Parent DiesGenerally we are able to get through the emotional pain and practical adjustments that come following our loss with the help of family and friends. However, sometimes we find ourselves stuck in the grief process, unable to move on with our lives or occasionally consumed by it and barely able to function.

Depending on what was lost, your individual personality, the circumstances surrounding the loss, and the resources and support you have available, one or more of these tasks may be difficult to complete in a satisfactory way. In my experience of helping clients with loss, the four most common reasons people find grief difficult to get through are:

The full meaning of what was lost hasn’t become clear. For example a divorced man was very bitter, and obsessed with getting his ex-wife to treat him respectfully. With counselling he identified that his desire for her respect now, was a way of avoiding acknowledging that that he had given so many years to a person who had never respected him. When he accepted this very great loss he was able to move on.

There have been a number of losses too close together. For example a woman was brought to counselling by her family because she still was debilitated by the death of her husband several years before. However since then, her four closest friends and family members had also died, overwhelming her with loss and change.

There is insufficient support or resources for grieving to take place. For example the woman above was without the very people who would have supported her to adjust to the loss of her husband.

The loss has triggered pre-existing psychological or emotional issues. For example after retiring from a successful career a man became depressed and very irritable with his family. In therapy he realised that the appreciation he received from his staff and employers over the years, had shielded him from a deep sense of having no value, that had developed during his childhood. As he came to understand the reasons for this, he was able to enjoy the new found freedom of retirement.


References

Worden, J.W. (2008). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. (4th edition). New York: Springer.

Worden, J.W. (2002). Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York: Guilford.


Karen Field is a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland » more details

Article posted 9 March 2007