Grief work

‘One person is missing, and your world is empty’ (‘Un seul être vous manque et tout est dépeuplé’), wrote French writer Alphonse de Lamartine in his poem titled ‘Isolation’ (‘L’isolement’) in 1819. 

In expressing the agony of his sorrow following the premature death of his lover, Elvire, Lamartine compared himself to a shadow left to wonder aimlessly in this world with no reason to go on living. 'The sun of the living', he wrote, 'no longer warms up the dead'.

What greater pain indeed than the loss of a loved one?

Dealing with the pain of loss is hard work and there are no short cuts. As early as 1917, in his studies on the impact of loss, Freud used the term ‘grief work’ to describe the psychological process of coping with significant and permanent loss. The process involves remembering the pain, expressing it and, in due time, learning to accommodate the loss and readjust to life without the loved one. 

Since then, a number of theorists have suggested models for the various stages of grief work. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), a pioneer on death studies, came up with a model known as the grief cycle after observing the effects of death on surviving loved ones. In describing the roller-coaster ride of emotions the bereaved is likely to experience, she identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  

Other researchers on the subject came up with slightly different models. Colin Murray Parkes labelled the stages of grief as: shock and numbness; yearning and searching; despair and working through; and acceptance; while William Worden assigned four tasks to the process of grieving: accepting the loss; experiencing the pain; adjusting to the environment; and re-investing energy into the self. 

A more recent model, devised by Stroebe and Schut, views grief work as a dual process, meaning that feelings between the so-called ‘loss-orientation’ and ‘restoration-orientation’ phases oscillate. In the loss-orientation period, the mourner deals with issues directly related to the loss such as sadness, loneliness, anger or despair, whereas in the restoration stage, the bereaved copes with secondary matters resulting from the change such as financial or familial challenges. Stroebe and Schut suggest that loss-oriented behaviours allow the bereaved to work through their emotions while adapting to the new reality.

Unlike the traditional grief work models, the dual process model is not linear but entails waxing and waning over time. Even in sequential models of grieving though, the stages of mourning do not occur in a predictable and progressive order. As they progress through their unique journeys, the bereaved may enter the cycle of grief at any point, go back and forth, fast or slow, in and out of a wide range of emotions. 

Adopting yet a different approach, Susan Bergen, author of The Five Ways We Grieve, has identified five types of grievers according to their response to the loss of a loved one:

  • Nomads are people who keep on looking for meaning and a sense of purpose for their changed lives.
  • Memorialists are those who try to maintain connection with the deceased by creating rituals and memorials in remembrance.
  • Normalisers strive to recapture a semblance of normality for themselves and their families.
  • Activists are driven by a sense of urgency and a desire to make a positive difference by improving the lives of others.
  • Seekers turn to spiritual thinking for comfort and look out to the universe in an attempt to make sense of their relationship to others and to the world.

According to Bergen, Nomads and Memorialists live in the past. Nomads have not yet resolved their grief and therefore cannot move forward. Memorialists choose to honour their loved one by preserving their memory and thus work their way through the grief process. Normalisers and Seekers learn to live in the present as they gain acceptance that the past cannot be altered and find their own ways of coping with the new reality. Finally Activists look to the future in their attempts to improve the quality of life of a specific group of people by joining a cause of their choice.

Bereavement is a natural and multi-faceted response to loss, so regardless of which grief work model is adopted, understanding the process helps the bereaved cope with unexpected and overwhelming feelings of intense sadness, loneliness, despair or guilt to name only a few. Although grief is a unique experience, it is also a universal experience; for this reason, giving words to sorrow paves the way to healing. 

‘Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.’ William Shakespeare

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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