Worden’s Four Tasks of Grieving

I have worked with many clients who have grieved the loss of a relationship or death of a loved one. Often, these clients would ask, “when will I be over this pain?” Recognizing that grieving is a challenging process, the feelings that accompany grief are an essential part of the experience. The grieving process and the emotions that accompany it help us come to terms with the loss and learn to integrate the meaning of the loss into our lives.

It can be validating to see elements that mirror our situation in the writing of others. Worden (1991) created Four Tasks of Grieving in order to help provide a framework for the grieving process. This model is flexible, meaning that you can adapt it to describe your situation. With all models, it is possible to move backward and forward in them, and for someone to encompass aspects of more than one stage. It is important to note that grieving is an individual process and there is no right or wrong way to experience it. As always, I empower clients to use this material in a way that is helpful to them.

  1. To accept the reality of the loss. This task involves coming to terms with the end of the person’s life or relationship. It is not uncommon for people to feel shock or disbelief after they have learned of the loss, or feel as if they are living in a dream or surreal reality. Some people will deny that the loss has taken place in order to protect themselves from intense emotional pain. Rituals such as funerals can help the person to come to terms with the reality of the loss.
  2. To work through the pain of grief. Once the person allows themselves to accept the irreversibility of the loss, they may experience intense waves of emotions. These may include: sadness, longing, nostalgia, emptiness, anger, numbness, and anxiety. It can be tempting to avoid these feelings through distraction, but allowing time and space to feel emotions while seeking support can be helpful. One of my favourite quotes regarding emotions is from Patrick Carnes: “feelings are like lemon drops, we suck on them until they go away.” Our body has a natural process for resolving grief, and if we honour it, we will experience relief. This task can be exhausting, so it is important to engage in basic self-care such as eating regular meals, sleeping, and drinking water.
  3. To adjust to a world without the deceased (or relationship). Gradually, people start to resume their normal routine after a loss. Sometimes people may feel guilty, believing that they are somehow forgetting or dishonouring the deceased by engaging in activities. This stage may involve learning new skills that the bereaved person may have performed. Therefore, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and resentful in this stage if someone is taking on many new responsibilities. The person may feel angry at the situation, and blame the decreased or others. However, this can also be a time of independence, self-discovery, and development.
  4. To find an enduring connection with the deceased (or relationship) in the midst of embarking on a new life. When I used to work with clients who had lost loved-ones to suicide, they used the term “new normal” to describe their life now. I like this idea because it acknowledged that life will never be the same without the loss, but affirmed that a new life is possible. I used to have a negative reaction to the world, healing, because I thought it implied forgetting about the loss. Now I see the purpose of the word healing, but choose to use the word, integration, to describe the process of keeping connected to the loss. I’ve noticed that the person’s relationship to the loss changes over time, but it never ends.

In my experience, the process of grief is not linear. This means that someone may have moments where they feel stable and days where they feel intense anguish. Having ups and downs is not a sign of failure or that someone is “doing something wrong” in this process. However, sometimes people can experience complicated grief, where they can get “stuck” in a certain stage for quite some time. The grieving inevitably impacts people’s lives, but people who have difficulty functioning for long periods of time may benefit from professional help.

Christina Schmolke is a registered psychologist who practices in Edmonton, Alberta. In her practice, she specializes in managing emotions and addiction (including sex and love). For more information, visit www.psychologistchristina.com

Worden, J. W. (1991). Grief counselling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (2nd ed.). London: Springer.

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