For as universal as grief is, it’s something that is still little understood. We will all grieve and mourn a loss at some point in our life. That is, unfortunately, certain. But what’s uncertain is how we will grieve. It’s uncertain how we will mourn. And it’s uncertain how we will cope as we make our own journey through our grief and try to find a path toward healing.
Despite the uncertainty, there have been attempts to identify and define certain aspects of grief. In this ongoing series, we will explore the different theories that try to define grief. In this segment, we’ll cover Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning. To see part one of our series, click here.
It’s important to remember that these theories are just that — theories. In reality, grief isn’t as simple as a list of steps or stages, and everyone grieves in their own unique way.
Worden and His Four Tasks
J. William Worden, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, proposed the idea of the Four Tasks of Mourning as an alternative to “stages of grief.” He explains this model in depth in his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.
The main idea behind the model is that grief is work. An article in Psych Central states Worden’s theory “requires commitment and active participation on the part of the person who is grieving, and…on the part of those who wish to help them.”
Worden’s model is meant to be flexible. That means each task of the mourner can be approached at any time, and in no particular order. Some psychologists state mourners will have to complete each “task” several times throughout the course of their life. It’s best to think of Worden’s model as a map of grief, or as a tool for guidance to help avoid getting “stuck” in bereavement and run the risk of developing complicated grief.
Below is a rundown of each of Worden’s Tasks for Mourners.
Task 1 — To Accept the Reality of a Loss
When faced with a death, especially in the case of a sudden or unexpected loss, it feels unreal. And it can hit us on many levels. For example, we might rationally accept the fact a loved one is no longer with us, but deep down, emotionally, we don’t. Acknowledging the new reality is an important foundation for healing.
So how do mourners complete this task? Rituals often help. Acts such as viewing the body, helping plan the funeral or memorial service, or scattering a loved one’s ashes are all rituals that help move us closer to acceptance.
Task 2 — Process Grief and Pain
This task basically states that a mourner should allow themselves to feel. When we grieve, there’s no telling what emotions we might feel. Grief exists on a large spectrum. There will be sadness, pain, fear, anger, helplessness, guilt and a whole other variety of emotions.
The important thing to remember about this task is that you can’t avoid these emotions. Some people try to put them off or avoid them. They might pick up extra hours at work, try to refrain from crying, or even pick up other unhealthy habits.
Worden’s model states we shouldn’t avoid our emotions, but rather express them. By acknowledging how grief makes us feel and being open about these feelings, a mourner is better able to work through these complex feelings.
Task 3 — Adjust to the World Without Your Loved One
After a loss, we have to adjust to our “new realities” of life without our loved one. This task requires adjusting externally to the world, but also internally, to new emotional and spiritual needs.
The types of adjustments also vary depending on our relationship with our loved one. For example, someone who has lost a spouse will have extra responsibilities as a caregiver around the house. This requires external adjustments. But a recent widow or widower will also have to adjust to the concept of living alone or doing things by themselves. This requires emotional adjustments.
Worden notes these adjustments are not easy and will take time. But working on this task helps us to better understand our new role in the world, as well as help us realize the impact that the loss has created in our lives.
Task 4 — To Find a Connection with the Deceased While Embarking on a New Journey
This task means finding a way to remain emotionally connected to our loved ones. This helps reaffirm that our relationship with a loved one didn’t end at death. There are many ways to do this. It could be creating a physical memorial connection, such as a memorial photobook, memorial jewelry, or another keepsake item. Or it could also be a ritual, such as visiting the gravesite at special times of the year or hosting an annual memorial dinner in their honor.
The importance of creating this connection is that we can maintain our connection with our loved ones, even as our own lives continue to change.
What are your thoughts on Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning? Share with us in the comments below! In our next segment, we’ll explore Rando’s Six R Process of Mourning.
I was lucky enough to be a student of Dr. Worden at funeral directing school in Boston in the 80’s. At the time I never realized what a gift that was. He was a wealth of knowledge. His four tasks make so much more sense now, 30 years later. Thank you for sparking a memory.