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A Map for the Grief Journey - Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Posted 04 Feb '15 by Gill Wier

When someone close to you dies the range and intensity of emotions you feel can be overwhelming.  As we don’t talk much about death in our society many of us don’t know what to expect from ourselves after a bereavement.  You may feel that other people expect you to “get back to normal” quickly. This leads some people to come to counselling concerned they are not recovering quickly enough, with fears that they will become “stuck” in their grief.

Research shows that there is no usual length of time for the grieving process – it depends on the individual and the circumstances of the death, but it is likely to take months or years rather than days or weeks.  The Four Tasks of Mourning model developed by William Worden is a really useful tool which gives us a map for the journey - an understanding of what needs to happen in order for us to process bereavement.  It gives some guidance on what we can do to help ourselves and prevent ourselves from getting “stuck”. Worden is clear that these tasks will not necessarily be completed in this order as everyone’s grief journey is unique.

Task I – To accept the reality of the loss. 

There is often a sense of unreality when someone dies as our minds struggle to process the enormity of what has happened. On a rational level you may know they have died but on an emotional level you can’t accept it.  Part of you expects to hear their voice on the phone or to see them walking down the street. 

What can I do? When you pick up the phone to automatically ring mum, be gentle with yourself when you remember she has died.  It takes time to shift towards talking about the person in the past tense but this shift does need to happen in order to accept they are dead and will not return. 

Task II – To process the pain of grief  

It is normal to feel a range of emotions including pain, sadness, guilt, anger and helplessness following bereavement and these need to be experienced as a part of the mourning process.  Understandably many people try to block out and avoid these intense and unpleasant feelings.  Distracting yourself with work, turning to alcohol or drugs, stopping yourself from crying, pretending it doesn’t matter are all ways of avoiding the pain.  However the grief is likely to resurface at times you don’t expect it and if unexpressed can lead to emotional difficulties in the future.

What can I do?  Although it’s painful, when you are in a safe place such as at home on your own or with a close friend, allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, allow tears to come. Find ways to express your emotions through writing, drawing or music. Talk to friends and family about the person who’s died.  You may find it helpful to see a counsellor at some point in the grief process, particularly if you are finding it hard to process the pain on your own a few months or years on from the death.

Task III – To adjust to a world without the deceased 

Losing a loved one requires us to make many external, internal and emotional adjustments.  From no longer having Dad around to ask for help with DIY to learning to feel safe in the house on your own, there will be a number of practical adjustments to make to life without the deceased person.  The death may affect our sense of self and the way we see the world.  It takes time to process and adjust to these changes. 

What can I do? Take time to reflect on how the death has changed things for you and action that you may need to take to learn new skills or develop your support network. There will be losses and also new opportunities inherent within the loss.  For example, an older woman whose husband dies after a long illness may find themselves with greater freedom to take up new activities, to travel or to spend more time with grandchildren. 

Task VI – To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life  

You do not need to forget about the person who has died.  They will always be an important part of your life and no one can take that away.  Finding a way to remain emotionally connected to deceased person can actually help you move forward into a new life without them.

What can I do?  Some find it helpful to make a photo album of the person’s life that they can look back on in years to come.  Having photos of the person on display can help maintain the sense of their presence in your life.  Rituals such as visiting the grave can be ways to connect with the person’s memory.  Simply recalling your most precious memories of them will over time come to bring joy rather than pain. 

Finding hope

Human beings have an incredible capacity to recover from loss and adjust to major life changes. The loss of a loved one turns your world upside down but over time it is possible to find ways to move on and integrate this experience into your life as a whole.  The grief will always be there but the way you experience it will change.  From being intense and overwhelming it will change into a sadness that is manageable to carry and could even enrich your life.