Grief affects us all. It’s part of living and experiencing love and loss. When your grief turns into mourning, it’s natural to feel deep sorrow for your loved one who has died. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief, but there are others you may identify with as well when going through a loss.
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One such method is from J.W. Worden, an internationally-renowned grief therapist, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and author. Worden has identified the stages of grief you should expect to go through as part of the bereavement process. In his 1982 book, “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” he proposes an alternative to the “five stages of grief” model popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
He introduces the idea that there are four tasks a bereaved person must accomplish in order to heal. Worden refers to them as the four tasks of mourning: accepting, acknowledging, adjusting, and reinvesting.
While many people are familiar with the five stages of grief, it can be helpful to learn other ways to manage and understand your own grieving process. Perhaps it can give you a different view of someone else’s grief as well.
Origin of Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning
J.W. Worden came up with the four tasks after joining a Harvard University Bereavement Study on death and suicide that was completed in 1968. He then went on to collaborate with his colleagues in a bereavement study that followed young widows and widowers who were around the age of 48 for five years after the death of their spouse.
From these studies, he started a series of continuing education workshops to teach his findings on grief and bereavement to groups of 100 people at a time. From these workshops came the idea of writing a book to protect his findings and ideas as his own.
His four tasks have influenced psychotherapists and grief counselors in treating patients suffering through grief and loss. His research and teachings continue to be one of the leading ways in which grief is addressed by most practitioners in the field of death and bereavement.
Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning
When you lose someone you love, part of your identity is also lost. Your reality of how things were has now changed. All this is normal and expected. Through this grieving process, allow yourself to explore your loss. Over time you'll see that things start to get better.
The four tasks of mourning involve learning to accept the loss of your loved one; acknowledging the pain and suffering attached to that loss; adjusting to your new life; and reinvesting in yourself.
Worden suggests that as you work through the pain of your loss you may experience one or all of these things at some point during your healing process. He describes these steps as necessary in working through your grief.
You may find that one stage lasts longer than the next, or that you haven’t experienced the other. This process is a fluid one that may be necessary to move forward with your life after your grieving period has come to an end.
Don't feel rushed as you complete each task. Some days you'll feel normal, and others you’ll feel a roller coaster of emotions. Little things might seem huge to you that at times you might not even want to get out of bed. But soon, you’ll find that things get a little bit easier each day.
1. Accept the reality of the loss
Accepting the reality of loss involves acknowledging that your loved one is gone. Soon you’ll realize that your life is no longer the same without them, and you’ll likely experience disbelief that it’s happened. If you find yourself in shock not knowing what to do next, this would be a good time to reach out and talk to someone you trust.
Shock is one of the first reactions that registers after someone you love dies. How you deal with death is different for everyone, and coming to terms with it may take several days or weeks. Even when you’re expecting it when your loved one is sick, it’s still hard to acknowledge it when it happens.
Being in denial over this disruption is normal, especially when it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When you realize that death has taken your loved one from you, and you’re no longer the same person you were before — this is the beginning of healing. After the shock of death wears off, it’s time to regroup.
2. Process your grief and pain
In acknowledging your loss, allow yourself to speak and tell your story. At first, it can feel like what you're feeling is too personal to share with others. Or, that no one wants to bother with the details of your grief and sadness. But, telling others about what you're going through helps you get rid of that burden that you’re shouldering on your own.
Suppressing your grief delays healing making it harder to resolve. Unresolved grief may creep up years later disrupting your life when least expected. You may not even know that grief is affecting your current relationships until it rears its sad and ugly head. The following may help you to courageously take the necessary steps to reach the next level:
- Know that the intensity of grief lessens over time
- You don't stop loving someone when they die
- Permit yourself to speak
- Share your story
- Keep a grief journal
- Join a grief support group
3. Adjust to the world without your loved one in it
Adjusting to the world without your loved one in it may take some time. There's no getting over the death of someone you love, but rather that you learn to move forward without them. The overwhelming pain you may be experiencing right now will in time become a distant memory and soon, you'll find yourself living a new reality.
Part of adjusting to your new reality begins with knowing the role you filled in your loved one's life. You may also want to consider the role they played in yours. Once these roles become clear, then it becomes easier to figure out which parts of your life have changed, and where there's room for adding something new.
This is a great time to take up that special hobby you've been putting off for years. Whether you've always wanted to take dance classes, paint, workout, or volunteer, adding something new to your routine will help you adjust. Anything that moves you toward healing will add value to your new existence.
4. Find a way to maintain a connection to the person who died while embarking on your own life
Though there can be a lot of ways to keep connected to your lost loved one, you may need some extra guidance to get started.
Continuing bonds therapy
Continuing bonds is the idea that you don’t have to detach yourself from your loved one when they die, and that there are healthy ways to maintain that closeness you once shared. It may be comforting to you to open up about your loss to your loved one who has died.
You can have a conversation with them when you go out for a walk, just as if they were walking next to you. Tell them how their death has affected you, how much you love and miss them, and anything else you want to tell them. Many people who are grieving find comfort in doing this.
Another way to keep your loved one close is by remembering them on special holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. You may want to bake a cake on their birthday, plant a tree in their honor at Christmastime, or donate to their favorite charity once a year. Including them in these special days allows for their memory to live on, while also bringing you joy and peace.
On especially trying days or when needing to make difficult decisions, try having a conversation out loud with them or seek their advice. It’s very normal to ask your loved one who has died to help guide you into making the right decisions. As you’re having this conversation, you may find yourself relaxing into finding the answers you are needing.
Maintaining family ties
When you maintain family ties related to your loved one who has died, you're not only honoring the role they played in your life, but you're showing the family that you care and value them as well.
This is true especially when you suffer the loss of a spouse. Many people tend to think that those family relations are severed when their loved one dies. You may find yourself wondering, "is my mother-in-law still my mother in law? Do I want her to be?"
The best way to determine if continuing these relationships suit you is to ask yourself if they add value to your life. Once your loved one dies, so does the obligation you might have felt you had to them. Now the decision is entirely yours to make. You don't have to do anything that you don't want to, and you don't need to explain yourself to anyone.
Leaving a legacy in memoriam
Leaving a legacy in memory of your loved one is a common way of honoring them for years to come. Through this act of charity, you are helping to advance a special cause that might've had significance to your loved during their lifetime. It might be their favorite little league team, the local homeless shelter, the food bank, or something more specific to an illness they may have suffered.
The legacy doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling figure, and you don’t need to be wealthy to make an impact. Most charities will advise that every little bit helps. If your finances don't lend to charitable gifting, consider volunteering your time in honor of your loved one.
Many organizations lack the man-power to carry out their mission in full. Your donation of time feeding the homeless, cleaning out cages at the animal shelter, or reading to the elderly in nursing facilities will help both you and the recipient of your gift of time.
Completing the Four Tasks of Mourning
Completing the four tasks of mourning doesn't mean that you have graduated to healing, or that your suffering ends here. The road to healing may be a long one filled with bumps and potholes. These tasks are only the roadmap to help you anticipate what might come next for you during this aspect of your life while trying to make sense of death. Sometimes the only thing that makes sense is that nothing makes sense.
To move on with your life, you'll need to allow yourself to grieve and mourn your loss even when you find yourself totally unprepared for it, or too confused to accept it.