What Are Bowlby and Parkes’s Four Stages of Grief?


Grief is a universal reaction to loss, but everyone processes grief differently. Several theories exist about why and how individuals grieve certain losses more than others. One of the most well-known grief theories is the “five stages of grief” model by the late Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her theory centers around how bereaved persons experience grief in sequential stages. 

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Before Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief model, a British psychologist and psychiatrist named John Bowlby (1907-1990) introduced a four-stage model of grief known as the "grief process." His observations evolved out of an attachment theory in how children develop psychologically based on their family circumstances.

His attachment theory was that children form special bonds with their caregivers and mourn their losses once those bonds break. He then applied his findings to how individuals grieve, coming up with three separate stages. His colleague, Colin Murray Parkes, later added a fourth and final stage. 

Origin of Bowlby and Parkes’s Four Stages of Grief

In 1969, Bowlby began a series of studies on how family circumstances affected children from troubled backgrounds. His research wasn't originally based on grief and loss but strictly on a child's behavioral reactions to losing their attachments. 

Bowlby soon discovered that children suffer from loss when separated from their parents and caregivers, which affects their psychological development. Because the child’s removal from the home breaks the affection bond, Bowlby observed that this loss resulted in grief. Only later did he and his colleague, Parkes, correlate how children grieve and mourn these losses.

Bowlby and Parkes's four stages of grief evolved from this study initially related to attachment theory. Bowles concluded that children's relationships with parents and caregivers have a lasting impact on how they grieve. He confirmed that whenever a child experiences the loss of a caregiver, the strength of the bond to that individual determines the child's grief reactions. 

Bowlby and Parkes further explored this theory from a grieving standpoint, realizing that loss leads to a natural grief response in children. From this research, they came up with the four stages of grief explained below. 

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Bowlby and Parkes’s Four Stages of Grief Explained

The four stages of grief developed and introduced by Bowlby and Parkes are some of the earliest findings on which Kübler-Ross and others base their grief model theories. Although they’re at opposite sides of the spectrum, there are many correlations to how bereaved individuals process their grief between the two theories. 

One of the significant differences is that Kübler-Ross based her work on dying patients, while Bowlby and Parkes’s work related to studying mourning survivors. Here’s are the four stages of grief introduced by Bowlby and Parkes.

1. Shock and numbness

The first of the four stages relate to how the mind reacts to the news of the loss. Loss isn't always associated with the death of a loved one or the physical loss of material things. Sometimes loss occurs as a result of broken relationships and the loss of family and home. Bereaved individuals experience the initial stages of grief known as shock and disbelief when they first suffer through trauma. 

In this stage, shared grief reactions include feeling numb, withdrawing emotionally, and becoming stuck in grief. It's especially hard for bereaved individuals coping with the first holiday season without a loved one, further aggravating the shock factor of their loss. 

2. Yearning and searching

An individual who suddenly or violently loses someone or something they have a special attachment to often yearns for that person or thing to return. In adults and children alike, this stage of grief represents the acknowledgment of the loss of relationships resulting from a death or another tragedy. When a grieving person can't move past the unconscious yearning for loss, the grieving process is delayed and often exacerbated. 

Many people will spend months, even years, yearning and searching. In this stage, it's typical for grieving individuals to experience other intense grief reactions, including preoccupation, anger, and hostility, especially at times when they remember deceased loved ones, such as at Christmas.

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3. Disorganization and despair

This stage is when changed behaviors become necessary for a suffering individual to progress through their grief. A person suffering through loss must learn to do away with old behavior patterns and ways of thinking. Survivors often experience feelings of disorganization while trying to accept that their life is no longer the same. 

Despair is also a grief reaction that manifests during this stage, sometimes leading to depression and apathy. In time, those suffering through loss will begin to emerge from this stage with renewed hope and ideas on surviving their grief. This period is one of self-reflection, renewal, and reinvention. 

4. Reorganization and repair

The final stage in the grief process involves the restoration of hope and a renewed sense of purpose in life. After coming to terms with loss, bereaved individuals slowly realize that life is worth living once more. They begin to find joy and even start new holiday traditions

To get to this phase of reorganization and repair, a person must first go through the process of breaking who they used to be. They must learn to consolidate the roles they filled within their past relationships and who they are now. Only after they undergo this realization can they begin the transformative process of resolving their grief. 

How Does Bowlby and Parkes’s Four Stages Compare to Other Models of Grief?

Through the past several decades, psychologists have introduced different models of grief to explain the grieving process according to their research and findings. The following models are some of the more widely referenced in the fields of grief and bereavement. 

Although there are many differing views on how to heal from grief, the basic premise of each of these models is that to heal from grief, you must first acknowledge it to begin working toward healing. 

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Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief

Kübler-Ross developed her Five Stages of Grief model after conducting clinical research on terminally ill patients. She first introduced her grief model in her book On Death and Dying, initially published in 1969. 

At the time, her findings were and remain somewhat controversial. She introduced the concept of a linear grief experience that goes through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While not everyone will experience all of these stages of grief, many bereaved individuals have many of these shared grief reactions. The Kübler-Ross model remains one of the most referenced grief models to date despite its controversies. 

One of the most significant differences between the Bowlby and Parkes's and Kübler-Ross models is that Bowlby and Parkes studied grief's effects on trauma survivors while Kübler-Ross focused on the impact of grief on dying individuals. 

Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Psychologist William Worden authored the book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, in which he first outlined the Four Tasks of Mourning. In his book, Worden suggests that for bereaved individuals to heal from grief, they must first accomplish four grief-related tasks. He bases his grief model on having the flexibility to adapt to any grief situation. The tasks include:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss
  2. Working through the pain and grief
  3. Adjusting to the new environment
  4. Finding a connection to the deceased while moving forward in life

Unlike Bowley and Parkes’s grief model, Worden doesn’t link the success of his model with an attachment theory. Worden suggests that these tasks of mourning are adaptable to any grief situation, and once completed, the bereaved can revisit any or all of the functions to make adjustments as needed. 

Rando’s Six R Process of Mourning

Dr. Theresa Rando’s six-step process to healing from grief is a three-stage process. Her model relies on bereaved individuals working through their grief toward healing. 

Her grief model breaks down as follows:

Phase One: Avoidance

There’s only one task to accomplish in this first phase: recognizing the loss. According to Rando’s theory, until bereaved individuals learn to accept their loss, they can’t move forward from their grief and begin the second phase of the healing process. The task associated with this phase is: 

  1. Recognizing the loss

Phase Two: Confrontation

During this phase, the bereaved come to terms with their grief reactions and feelings of loss and mourning. Here, the grieving individual must learn ways to process their grief. The tasks associated with this phase include:

  1. Reacting to the loss
  2. Recollecting and re-experiencing the relationship with the deceased
  3. Relinquishing old attachments

Phase Three: Accommodation

This final phase is about finding new meaning in life after loss and rebuilding. Loss survivors might consider new hobbies, moving to a different house or city, and taking the time to learn about themselves post-loss. This phase includes:

  1. Readjusting to life
  2. Reinvesting of emotional energy 

Rando’s and Bowley’s and Parkes’s models for understanding the grief process have similarities in that they both rely on integration and processing, leading to adaptation. They both recognize the need for a period of disorganization before reorganization can take place. The differences between the two are that Rando paints a much broader picture of the grief process while Bowley and Parkes have a more limiting feelings-based view of how individuals react to grief. 

How the Four Stages of Grief Impact Healing

With so many differing views and opinions on what makes up a more profound healing experience for grieving individuals, it’s easy to get lost in the theories. As you learn and discover more about your grief, keep in mind that there isn’t any wrong way to grieve. Your grief experience remains unique to you, and the path to healing is also yours to discover. 

  1. Maciejewski PK, Zhang B, Block SD, Prigerson HG. An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA. 2007;297(7):716–723. doi:10.1001/jama.297.7.716 jamanetwork.com

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