Mourning is the active coping process we engage in to process grief and move toward accommodating and adapting to the loss we have experienced. Psychologist J. William Worden identified four tasks of mourning that need to be completed to fully process our grief.
Task 1: To Accept the Reality of the Loss
When we receive news of a loss, our brain often goes into denial or shock to protect us from devastation and pain that could potentially overwhelm our system. As a result, we may not initially be able or willing to fathom the reality of the loss. We may act like nothing has happened. This may take the form of outright, deliberate denial, for example maintaining the belongings of a deceased loved one as though they were about to walk back into the room, or more subtle cues, for example mistakenly recognizing a deceased loved one in a crowded street. Another form of avoiding the reality of a loss is distancing ourselves. This can take the form of recalling only negative things about what we have lost, selectively forgetting the existence, or removing all reminders of our loss, reinforcing a sense of nothing significant happening. The reality of the loss needs to be acknowledged before we can move on to subsequent tasks of mourning.
Task 2: To Process the Pain of Grief
Losing someone we love can bring on earth-shattering pain and sadness, but also more complex or conflicting emotions like anger, guilt, shame, or relief. Initially, these feelings can be overwhelming and we may freeze up and detach. This can be enhanced by people around us who may not know how to help us or are uncomfortable to sit with our grief, and instead use platitudes or deflection to try to make us feel better. It can be tempting to cut ourselves off from our pain to varying degrees. This can range from detaching from our feelings, avoiding memories of the deceased, or even impulsive decision-making, like moving to a new country, selling a lifelong home, or dissolving a business. Allowing ourselves to experience the pain of grief in ways we can tolerate, lets us process this pain in a healthy way. This is essential for moving on to subsequent tasks of mourning, to fully integrate the loss into our lives and develop a new relationship with our deceased loved one. Fully processing the pain of grief will also prevent the development of related mental health issues later on as a result of stuck emotions.
Task 3: To Adjust to a World without the Deceased
Our relationships guide our interactions with the world externally, internally, and spiritually. At an external level, our loved one plays certain roles in our lives, some of which we may not realize until they are gone. These can include practical roles, such as shared responsibility in paying bills or raising children, but also intangible roles, such as being a source of emotional support or guidance. This may mean we need to adjust to our loss by learning new skills and taking on new roles, which can feel difficult, especially in the early stages of grief. The external adjustment to a world without the deceased may in part come from ourselves adapting to new roles and in part from reaffirming existing connections or establishing new connections that may take over some of these roles.
At an internal level, death can impact our sense of self and identity. As social beings, parts of our identity is formed in relation to the people around us. For example, we may be partners, parents, grandparents, children, friends, or colleagues. When someone close to us dies, we may then experience a loss of this part of our identity. This is particularly strong for family relationships. For example, when a parent dies, are we still their child even if they are no longer around to relate to in this way? Who takes over the role they have played in our lives? The internal adjustment to a world without the deceased involves establishing our new identity, our self-esteem, and our self-efficacy in a changed world.
At a spiritual level, death can unsettle our belief system and the assumptions we have about the world. There are three primary assumptions that are frequently challenged by death:
· The idea of the world being a safe and benevolent place, where humans are generally well-intentioned and trustworthy;
· The idea that the world makes sense and things happen for a reason;
· And the idea that humans are worthy and deserving of good things.
The more unexpected, tragic, or violent a death is, the more likely one or more of these assumptions are challenged, which can leave the mourners feeling lost, confused, unsafe, isolated, and un-anchored. The spiritual adjustment to a world without the deceased requires us to adjust our beliefs, values, and assumptions by integrating the changes from the loss into our worldview.
Task 4: To Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life
When we lose a loved one, it is important to find ways to transform and maintain our connection with them while also moving on with our own lives. The key to this is creating an internalised representation of the deceased containing who they were and what they meant to us. This task can also include maintaining rituals to remember our loved one both alone and with others. The memories formed with the deceased can be kept alive within us in a way that is meaningful to us and acknowledges and values the time we shared. The nature of this enduring connection is that it allows us to integrate our deceased loved one into our lives and selves, without precluding us from forming new, rewarding, and meaningful connections. This way we can honour the past, while also embarking into the future.
The death of someone close to us can have a profound impact on us at various levels, ranging from practical changes in roles and responsibilities, and the pain of loss, to significant readjustments of our worldview. It is important to process the loss and achieve all four tasks of mourning to be able to move forward in a healthy, balanced way in a world without the deceased.
If you are going through grief and feel stuck at any of these tasks of mourning, please get in touch to find out how we can help here. For more information on the grieving process, please check out our article The Five Stages of Grief.