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The Grieving process: Top theories about understanding grief

Melancholy young person, grey day

Picture by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

No-one’s grieving process is exactly the same as someone else’s. Every person works through grief in their own way, and each bereavement can be a new journey for us.

We might expect tears and great feelings of sadness when someone dies, but strong emotions including anger, guilt and the loss of our sense of ‘self’ can also be among the unfamiliar feelings that engulf us.

Over the years, psychologists have come up with a number of grief theories, which aim to identify the stages that many people experience when someone dies. These grief ‘models’ can help us better understand emotions that may take us by surprise and overwhelm us with their intensity.

Many therapists and counsellors use these grief models as the basis for their own way of helping people work through the grieving process and the emotions they experience.

It’s said that the funeral marks the beginning of the grieving process. The funeral ritual and act of burial or cremation is, in a physical sense, the first stage of acknowledging that someone has died. After the whirlwind of activity, phone-calls, arranging, sympathy calls and the funeral service, comes the quieter time when our minds begin to try to process.

Models of grief

A death can be simply too big for our minds to take in all at once. Experts have defined emotional phases, which may come in waves, go around in circles, or seem like ‘stages’ to which we can return, as we adjust to a new normal without someone we loved. Processing grief is a journey towards the acceptance and accommodation of loss, rather than a ‘cure.’

Learning to adapt to life without someone can be very hard. Grief models can help people to work through the grieving process, reassured that what they are going through is ‘normal.’

The following grief theories are among the best-known models exploring how people grieve and learn to heal, living with loss.

The Five Stages of Grief

The Five Stages of Grief is one of the best-known grief theories. Psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as the key ‘stages’ our minds go through after someone dies.

Some people have said that the five stages of her grieving process are too orderly to reflect just how messy grief can be. Dr Kubler-Ross later said that her theory was never intended as a linear journey, but a series of points we may often revisit, as we adjust to life without someone we loved.

Tonkin’s Model of Grief

Dr Lois Tonkin’s model of grief is based on the principle that grief is a wound we gradually heal around. Growing around our grief means that the loss of someone will always be a part of us, but that this void and sadness will eventually not dominate our capacity to truly live.

The Four Tasks of Grieving

Dr. J. William Worden’s Four Tasks of Grieving, offers four things we can strive to do, in order to live with the loss of someone: Accept the reality of what’s happened, process the pain, adjust to a life without someone’s physical presence and create a new connection with them, in our memory.

The Six Rs of Mourning

The Six Rs of Mourning is clinical psychologist Dr Therese Rando’s theory about how actively grieving is in itself, a healing act.

The six tasks she identifies aim to work through four grief phases: recognising the reality of a death, reacting to the separation, ‘re-experiencing’ good and bad memories, letting go of how things were and accommodating memories of someone, in your changed world.

The Dual Process Model

Clinical psychologists Professor Margaret Stroebe and Dr Henk Schut’s dual process model of grief, works around to ways of journeying through bereavement. It allocates time to think about how much you miss your loved one and time also to take on practical activities that can give you respite, for short a while, from your pain.

The idea is to go back and forth, or ‘oscillate’ between these stages, as you work to accommodate someone’s physical absence from your life.

The Reconstruction of Meaning

This grief theory, The reconstruction of meaning, explores how to adjust to the alien place you find yourself in, when someone dies. A bereavement can turn your world upside down, making it difficult to find meaning in it. Perhaps your own sense of identity has changed and your sense of ‘place.’

This grief model can help you in ‘meaning-making’, through assimilating (adjusting to a loss) and accommodating. In other words, reaching a stage of acceptance of your changed world.