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Grief Theories Series: Parkes and Bowlby’s Four Phases of Grief

by | Mar 20, 2018 | For Families

Woman standing on a bridge

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 Parkes and Bowlby’s Four Phases of Grief. To see the other theories we’ve covered so far, click 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.

Parkes and Bowlby

Many models and theories of grief originate with the work of psychologist John Bowlby. Interestingly, Bowlby’s own work didn’t focus on grief — at least not at first. His primary work focused on attachment theory — specifically the psychological attachment between a child and their parents.

Attachment theory states that once an attachment has been formed — for example, between a child and their parents — a response (typically fear, anger, frustration, or grief) is unavoidable when the attachment or bond breaks. Attachment theory explores all types of bonds, from person to person, person to objects, or person to situation. It also explores the different types of emotional responses a person feels when these attachments break.

It’s easy to see how attachment theory falls into the study of theories on grief. And that’s exactly what grief psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes did. Parkes expanded on Bowlby’s attachment theory to develop the Four Phases of Grief.

The premise of this grief model is that when an attachment to a loved one is broken through something like death, the feelings of grief we feel are a normal adaptive response to the loss.

The Four Phases

Parkes and Bowlby outline their model with the following four emotional phases:

Shock and Numbness: This is the initial phase immediately following the loss of a loved one. The shock and numbness are attributed to not being ready to accept the reality of a loss. According to Parkes and Bowlby, this phase is a self-defense mechanism that allows a person to cope immediately after learning about their loss.

Yearning and Searching: In this phase, a person experiences all types of emotion — from anxiety to anger, despair, confusion, sorrow, and much more. The bereaved begin to yearn for the return of their loved one, as well as search for meaning in their loss.

Disorganization and Despair: In this phase, a person starts to accept the reality of their loss. As they do so, they might feel the need to withdraw from their everyday life or from activities and hobbies they once enjoyed. They begin to understand that their old reality will never be the same, and this leads to feelings of despair or hopelessness.

Reorganization and Recovery: This is the phase where the mourner begins to understand that their old life is forever changed, but they begin to accept their new “normal.” It’s a slow process, but a person begins to understand the positive aspects of their life after loss. They begin to have increased energy and positive emotions, and find renewed interest in activities and hobbies. It doesn’t mean a person stops grieving — they’ll still have moments of sorrow and sadness — but they will also begin to have more positive memories about their relationship with their loved one.

What are your thoughts on Parkes and Bowlby’s Four Phases of Grief? Share with us in the comments below! In our next segment, we’ll explore the Continuing Bonds Theory.

Download our free guide on grief for ways to help your client families through their grief journey.

1 Comment

  1. Debbie

    With regards to the attachment theory if a spouse has been abandoned it is unlikely they will return to having positive memories about the past. With abandonment, history is skewed when the partner shows his true colours. It makes it difficult to believe if any of your past happy memories were real or merely manipulated or staged by your partner. Healing from this type of grief is of a different nature and the betrayal very difficult to move past. Everything you once thought was real
    becomes questionable. Betrayal by the one person you truly loved and trusted is devestating beyond all imagination unless you have taken that journey yourself.


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