The Dual Process Model of Grief: How It Works

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Have you ever heard the phrase "moving in and out of grief" and wondered what that meant? For many people, those words may not mean much, unless you've experienced a profound loss in your life.

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But for those of you who have, you know exactly what it means to waver between grieving to not grieving as a way of coping with the tremendous pain of your loss. 

This is one way of explaining the dual process model of grief. It's the switching back and forth from focusing on your grief to completely shutting it out so that you can function and accomplish the things that you must get done in your everyday life. This dual process model is the theory behind what many of us already instinctively do to move forward in life after suffering a significant loss.

What’s the Dual Process Model of Grief?

The Dual Process Model of Grief describes the ways that people come to terms with their loss. This theory was developed in the mid-90s by two grief workers, Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut based on their grief study called “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: A Decade On.”

In this study, Stroebe and Schut found that people who are bereaved and dealing with grief will switch back and forth between grieving and not grieving as a coping mechanism to deal with their grief. 

Without this dual process, it would be more difficult to work through the stages of grief and move on with life. This shifting back and forth is a way of processing grief not only in a theoretical or clinical way but in an actual way that people process grief in real life.

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How Does the Dual Process Model of Grief Work?

The dual process model of coping with bereavement was originally applied to people who were grieving the loss of a partner. Over time, the model grew to describe how people coped with the loss of any person close to them. There are distinct ways in which people cope with their loss that are detailed throughout each of the components of this grief model. 

In theory, this model focuses on people who are experiencing grief and mourning after a loss and their ability to find a way to cope with the pain of their sorrow that allows them to move forward in life. The dual process model allows for the going back and forth between allowing oneself to grieve their loss, and shutting off emotions in order to function in daily life.

1. Loss orientation

The first part of this model, “loss orientation,” can be explained as a type of stressor that forces you to concentrate on and deal with the processing of your loss in some capacity. When you’re dealing with loss orientation as you try and cope with your loss, you may find yourself allowing certain parts of your grief to overtake your rational thinking. 

For example, you may find yourself actively obsessing over the loss of your loved one, every detail of your life together prior to their death, and allowing for an unhealthy longing to set in. These are all normal experiences of the loss-orientation process.

When handling grief in a healthy way, you can avoid having loss orientation derail your progress and movement toward healing. Under this theory, you must learn to accept all aspects of the model in order to better cope with your loss. Other parts of loss orientation include: 

  • Grief work: the process of putting your loss into perspective and finding ways of working through your grief. It may include grief counseling or grief therapy, memorializing your loved one, grief rituals such as holding a funeral or memorial service, and other ways of honoring the life of your loved one who has died. 
  • Intrusion of grief: thinking about and feeling your loss intensely especially at a time when you were not actively seeking to work on your grief. 
  • Relinquishing continuing-relocating bonds/ties: the process of coming to terms with your loss and your changing roles in life. This includes acceptance and moving on from what was to what is now present in your life. Coping with these particular changes might be a bit overwhelming. Consider reading books on grief and stories of others who have undergone similar experiences. 
  • Denial/avoidance of restoration changes: the process of side-stepping all your efforts to go back to a normal life after the death of your loved one. 

2. Restoration orientation

The second portion of this theory is known as “restoration orientation.” Where loss orientation puts a spotlight on grief itself, this part focuses on managing secondary sources of stress and as a result, how you cope with them to deal with the life changes created by your loss. Simply put, restoration orientation is when you must face your responsibilities and obligations in order to function. 

It helps to restore you into a life that is somewhat normal following a loss. Here is where you confront changes in roles and relationships, responsibilities, and other such matters like paying the rent and utilities. These life adjustments must eventually be dealt with but may also be overwhelming for you to deal with all at once. Other examples of secondary losses as a result of losing your loved one may include:

  • Having to do your own cooking and cleaning
  • Reorganization of your life without your loved one
  • Moving into a smaller home
  • Shaping a new identity
  • Mastering new skills

3. Oscillation

This is an emotion regulation process that allows you to go from grieving to functioning and back to grieving as it suits your needs. Like a wave, you retreat and approach both loss and resolution as a coping mechanism. It allows you to go between the above two components of the dual process model of grief. 

When you oscillate between the two, you move from coping and not coping, or giving attention to your stressors and avoiding them altogether. The process of oscillation between loss and restoration orientation is necessary because you cannot operate simultaneously in both dimensions of the grief model. Some examples of oscillation include:

  • Being confronted by your loss
  • The avoidance of memories
  • Seeking distractions to avoid pain
  • Focusing on the loss to work through the pain

Examples of the Dual Process Model of Grief

Sometime after suffering a major loss, you will need to find a balance between the loss and restoration components of the dual process model of grief. In order to do that, you will have to pull away from one set of emotions so that you can focus on the other.

Here are a few examples.

  • Going from crying your heart out over your loss and sudden widowhood to having to dry your tears and focusing on the household finances. You have to pay any recurring bills, and file annual taxes when they come due — none of which wait until you’re done being bereaved. 
  • Lamenting over the loss of your spouse and all the ways in which they contributed to the household to figuring out who will do the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores you never learned to do. Especially now that you’re hungry, have a bin full of dirty socks and underwear, and only the shirt on your back that’s decent enough to wear for another week. 
  • Grieving the loss of your child and your previous role of mother to twins and needing to shift your attention to your other surviving children and taking care of their needs. 

Alternative Grief Models

There are other grief models that have been formulated to help you work through your grief. Some of them are more widely accepted than others, while some are fairly outdated theories and used only as a guide to the different stages of the grief process.

All in all, every theory out there may serve simply as a purpose for someone who is grieving. Because we do not all grieve in the same way, one theory might work best over another depending on the individual addressing their needs utilizing one model versus another.

The following grief models can be used as an alternative to the dual process model theory:

Kubler-Ross’ five-stage model of grief, which includes:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression 
  • Acceptance

Worden’s four tasks of mourning are:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Processing your grief and pain
  • Adjusting to the world without your loved one in it
  • Finding a way to maintaining a connection to your deceased loved one while moving on with your own life

Rando’s “six Rs” model:

  • Recognize the loss
  • React to the separation
  • Recollect and re-experience
  • Relinquish old attachments
  • Readjust
  • Reinvest

Going From Grieving to Not Grieving

One of the most successful ways of moving through your grief is to address your feelings and emotions as they come up.

While the above alternate grief models have proven to be very successful in the past, there are new ways to embrace your feelings and emotions. By thinking about them and accepting them in whatever order they arrive can be a realistic way to approach your grief and ultimately find healing.


Sources

  1. Stroebe, M.s & Schut, H.A.W.. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Overview and update. Death studies. 23. 197-224. 10.1080/074811899201046.

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