What’s ‘Grief Work?’ Definition + Principles Explained

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The grief experience will be different for everyone who has suffered any type of loss in their lives. Whether the loss stems from a divorce, job or career, the family home, or the death of a loved one, everyone will experience some or all of the different stages of grief at some point during their grief journey. 

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The term “Grief work” is known as the process of putting your grief into perspective and finding a way to work it into your life as you heal from your loss. It requires actively mourning your losses and working through the pain and suffering associated with grieving. This theory depends on you expending both physical and emotional energy doing tasks that help you successfully resolve your grief. 

The ‘Grief Work’ Model Defined

Grief work is the psychological process of coping with a significant loss. It’s a theory introduced in 1944 by renowned psychiatrist and researcher Erich Lindemann. Lindemann studied the long-term impact of grief and trauma on the bereaved. He looked at those affected by unresolved past grief beyond the ordinary and normal grief models. Lindemann established and presented some of the most common symptoms of suffering, which included:

  • Somatic distress. Placing excessive focus on physical symptoms such as pain, weakness, and shortness of breath. Somatic distress interferes with your ability to function daily. 
  • Preoccupation with images of the deceased. Fixating on images of the dead and going over and over specific memories of them.  
  • Guilt. Focusing on things you could have or should have done differently to prevent your loved one’s death. 
  • Hostile reactions. Feeling irritable and lashing out against others who are expressing their support during your time of loss. 
  • Loss of pattern of conduct. Losing interest in your life’s overall daily aspects, such as routine and mandatory actions like keeping good hygiene habits, tidying up the house, and watering the plants. 
  • Traits of the deceased person appearing in the bereaved person. Adopting the person’s walk or gait, enhancing similar features to them, dressing like them, and taking up their hobbies are all examples of this. 
ยป MORE: Are you helping someone through a loss? Make sure you're on the right track with this post-loss checklist.

 

What Are the Main Tenets of ‘Grief Work?’ 

It bears repeating that there is never a right or wrong way to process your grief. However, some grief theory models provide a healthier way toward working through your grief than others. Grief work in particular focuses on the things that people do to progress through their grief as they work toward healing. To successfully work through their grief, Lindemann outlined three tasks required of a person looking toward resolving their grief.

It involves:

  •  Emancipation from bondage to the deceased
  •  Readjustment to a new environment in which the deceased is not a part of
  •  The formation of new relationships

Some of the central tenets of grief work principles show that you can heal from grief’s psychological and emotional wounds. There are specific steps you can take to help you recover from your loss’s pain and suffering. They can briefly be described as:

1. Psychological wounds heal

Just as the body heals itself of physical injuries, the mind can also recover from loss’s psychological wounds. Although it may take months or years to heal successfully from your grief, it’s possible to do so healthily and constructively. The mind and body have built-in mechanisms to help them recover from injury and trauma.

You must give yourself the right tools and environment for self-healing to take place. Some suggested ways are taking an active approach and working at it every day, such as seeking therapy, talking about your loss, or honoring the memory of your loved one in meaningful and lasting ways. 

2. Guilts and resentments can be worked through

A grieving mind often produces irrational thoughts and scenarios as it pertains to your loss. A person who’s suffered through a significant loss finds fault within themselves frequently. They ruminate over why things happened the way they did. 

They may blame themselves for not having been there or done enough to keep their loved ones from dying. They may also resent the timing or circumstances of their passing, especially if not allowed a final opportunity to make amends in an estranged relationship.

If you are having these types of thoughts, you can work through them by remembering that they are just that--thoughts. You are experiencing a tough moment in life that may make you feel weak because you were unable to prevent it or change the outcome. Engaging in ‘what-ifs’ or delusions will not change the reality that you have experienced a great loss.

3. Prevent feelings of isolation

An essential tenet of grief work is to take an active approach toward staying connected to others during your grieving process. The grief work model requires that you reintegrate into society after a period of mourning and isolation.

Reintegration is so that you don’t feel as if you’re alone in your grief, and it can be something as simple as connecting with others through social media, text messaging, or calling people you know. Isolation can lead to deeper levels of depression and despair among those who are mourning. 

4. Discuss the dying process

Talking about death, dying, and the process of dying is typically a taboo subject in western culture. Grief work suggests that it’s healthy not only to talk about death but to talk about it as it specifically pertains to the direct loss that you’ve suffered. Lindemann suggests that it’s beneficial to discuss the dying process in cases of:

  • Sudden or prolonged illness and death
  • Expected vs. unexpected death
  • Violent or peaceful death
  • Not having the chance to say goodbye

5. Detach yourself from the deceased

Grief work also relates to the emotional attachments and the severing of ties with your loved one after their death. Successfully working through your grief requires that you detach yourself from the deceased so that you’re no longer emotionally invested in that person.

The concept involves literal detachment, especially wherever attachment elicits a strong emotional response when the bonds with your loved one are disrupted by death. This allows you the freedom to pursue making new connections and entering into new relationships.

6. Formulate a new life 

Letting go of your past life and forming a new life and identity that doesn’t include your deceased loved one in it is one of the central tenets of working through your grief. Your connection to your deceased loved one can hinder your forward progress when you harbor the fear of letting go. Feelings of depression and despair may attach that prevent you from moving on from your pain and suffering.

Finding new meaning in your life after the death of your loved one can help you heal as you form new bonds and relationships with others. Remaining stuck in the past and with what you once had is an unhealthy approach to working through your grief. 

7. Work through the stages of grief

There are many different types of grief associated with loss and mourning. Pioneers in the field of death and dying, including the American-Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helped to identify the five stages of grief that a grieving person is likely to experience. They include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Although these five stages of grief are another subset of grief work, Kübler-Ross’s research leading to its development was highly influenced by Lindemann’s earlier work. In theory, a grieving person must recognize and work through each stage of the grieving process as it appears to heal from loss successfully. 

8. Go through the tasks of mourning

Another task-oriented grief work model is psychologist J.W. Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning. Worden sets about these tasks needing to be worked through as part of a grief work model for grief resolution. His model emphasizes moving through grief phases and actively working through each one as you mourn your loss by accomplishing specific tasks. 

They require you to first accept your loss’s reality without clouding the facts or romanticizing your relationship with the deceased. The second forces you to allow the experience of your grief to take hold as you work through it without minimizing it or trying to suppress it. Then, adjusting to your new life without your loved one in it, and reinventing yourself and your identity as it was connected to your loved one who died. And finally, the fourth task requires you to form new relationships and set aside your deceased loved one’s memories to move forward with your new life and identity.

9. Identify and grieve secondary losses

Whenever there are additional losses associated with your primary loss, grief work can become more complex. A person suffering from a secondary loss may experience grief symptoms for losses that aren’t apparent on the surface.

For example, losing a job or career may lead to grief over losing your identity or title. You may recognize the feelings of loss and grief, but you may not know where they’re stemming from. To work through your grief, you must identify the source of any underlying suffering you may be experiencing. 

10. Seek professional counseling

If you’re lacking social or emotional support in your immediate social circle, you may require professional help or grief counseling. Finding a source of support is essential in helping you not only cope with your grief but help you resolve some unresolved past traumas. Unresolved grief tends to complicate the grieving process making it that much more challenging to work through. 

Working Through Your Grief

Processing your grief takes time. It may take months, even years, for you to feel as if your grief tasks are complete. Allow yourself the necessary time to process your grief and heal from it by working on it a little each day. Some of your pain and suffering will never completely go away, but as long as you’re working toward healing, the healing process has begun. 


Sources

  1. Naidu, Maheshvari. “Belief and Bereavement: The Notion of " Attachment " and the Grief Work Hypothesis.” ResearchGate, Journal for the Study of Religion, 1 January 2012, www.researchgate.net/publication/274083312_Belief_and_Bereavement_The_Notion_of_Attachment_and_the_Grief_Work_Hypothesis/
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