How Grief Changes Over Time (AKA Grief Theories)

There’s nothing new about grief—it’s been part of the human experience since our beginnings, and there’s even plenty of evidence that animals grieve, too. As long as humans have been experiencing death and grief, we have also been trying to make sense of both death and the grieving process.

In my practice, I find there are three ‘grief theories’ that particularly resonate. None of these theories explains every aspect of the grief process, but they can be helpful in understanding how grief matures as time passes. All of these theories support a more modern view of grief and recognize that grief is a messy, individual process—even though some aspects of grief may be similar for all grievers, each experience of grief is different. 

Dual Process Model

According to the dual-process model of grief, when a loved one dies grievers fluctuate between focusing on loss-oriented stressors, focusing on restoration-oriented stressors and taking breaks to completely avoid or shut out the grief. In this model, loss-oriented stressors mean confronting head-on the loss of the person—for example, looking at photos of the loved one, thinking about what he or she would have said about a situation or reminiscing about old times. Restoration-oriented stressors are, on the other hand, the secondary stressors that have to be dealt with as the griever puts his or her life back together. This might mean the necessity of managing a household alone or dealing with financial trouble, in the case of someone whose spouse has died, for example. 

The dual-process model of grief explicitly recognizes that no one spends all of their time facing the trouble the loss created head-on. It makes space for and even encourages self-care that avoids the grief—exercise, a spa treatment, television marathons. 

Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Another useful grief theory is William Worden’s four tasks of mourning. Worden gives four basic steps that he thinks are required for a griever to “reestablish equilibrium,” in his words. Although he doesn’t lay out a specific order—and grievers can work on one or all of the ‘tasks’ at any time,” the tasks themselves do seem to imply a certain order. Here are Worden’s tasks of mourning:

  • Accept the reality of the loss
  • Work through the pain of grief
  • Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life

These tasks seem deceptively simple, but involve acknowledging on a deep level how much the person meant to you and the depth of the loss while also finding a way to honor him or her as you move forward in life. 

Continuing Bonds

The “continuing bonds” grief theory is one of the simplest and yet does an excellent job capturing what the grief process entails for many people. This theory is focused not on grief work or “moving on,” but on creating a new, life-long relationship with the person you’ve lost. The continuing bonds grief theory recognizes that healthy grief does not mean forgetting about or detaching from your loved one, but rather finding new ways to maintain your connection with him or her. 

Working with a professional grief counselor can help you understand how grief works and feel more in control of your grief process. Professional counseling and support groups can give you a road map that will make navigating grief less bewildering. All of the grief theories highlight one point, however—while the loss stays with you forever, you can find joy again.

Photo by Sarandy Westfall