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Grief Theories Series: Modern Grief Theories

by | Apr 12, 2018 | For Families

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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 some of the modern theories of grief. To see the other theories we’ve covered so far, click on the links below.

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.

The Study of Grief

The study and our understanding of grief has come along way. It was just about 100 years ago that Sigmund Freud proposed his theory of grief which stated that “mourning comes to a decisive end when the subject severs its emotional attachment to the lost one and reinvests the free [energy] in a new object.”

Basically, his theory was more or less saying once we “get over” the loss we’ll be fine. But as we all know, it just doesn’t work that way. But what this theory does show is how far our understanding of grief has come.

Our understanding of grief is constantly evolving. In this part of the series, we are going to explore some of the most recent theories of grief out there today.


Constructivism, or construction of meaning, is a theory popularized by Robert Niemeyer. The main idea of Constructivism is that a person’s reality is shaped by how they make sense of their experiences in life. And when a loss occurs, people begin to question the reality and worldview they’ve made for themselves.

According to this model, grief is the process “of reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.” Basically, when we lose someone we love, we are trying to both find meaning in our own life, as well as meaning in the loss. Niemeyer suggests that for people struggling to reconstruct meaning, they should try writing epitaphs for their loved one, journaling, acknowledging how a loved one influenced their lives, or writing poetry or stories to express their feelings of grief.

Adaptive Grief

Adaptive Grief is another newer model. It was proposed by grief researchers Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin in the book Grieving Beyond Gender.

Their model reflects that grief is a complex process that’s unique to the individual and has many variables — including personality and a person’s culture.

Under their model, grief falls under three broad patterns. There are instrumental mourners, intuitive mourners, and dissonant mourners.

  • Instrumental mourners: This type of mourner prefers to express grief in physical, behavioral, or even cognitive ways. They like to focus on activities or actions as opposed to expressing their feelings and emotions. To some, it might come off as cold or uncaring, but it’s simply how they feel comfortable approaching grief.
  • Intuitive mourners: This type of mourner is the opposite of the instrumental mourner. They experience a variety of powerful emotions — such as sadness, anger, and anxiety. They are also more comfortable expressing these emotions with others.
  • Dissonant mourners: Dissonant mourning occurs when someone tries to suppress their natural way of grieving. For example, a man might feel he needs to avoid expressing his emotions, so he tries to follow a more instrumental style of mourning. Or someone who naturally grieves with an instrumental mourning style might struggle with why they don’t feel the need to express emotions (such as crying). This lack of emotional expression then leads to feelings of anxiety. This suppression of our natural emotions disrupts a healthy grieving process.

According to the adaptive grieving theory, many of us are what’s called blended mourners. It’s a mix of both instrumental and intuitive mourning, with one of the styles appearing more dominant at times.

Psychedelics and Grief?

Dr. Richard Miller — who will give a talk at the Reimagine End of Life convention this year — has proposed a provocative new approach to grief. In his book, Psychedelic Medicine, Dr. Miller explores the new science and study around trauma and loss and how psychedelic therapies — such as the use of psilocybin, or psychedelic mushrooms — might be used in the future to help patients facing their own death as well as those mourning a loss.

What are your thoughts on some of the modern grief theories? Share with us in the comments below! In our final segment, we’ll explore the Bowen Family Systems Theory.


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