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By Hannah Mosser, MA, LPC

When you think “grief therapy,” you might think of the five well-known stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is an older model that suggests there is a “right way” to grieve. That there is a specific order by which you are supposed to experience the loss of a loved one. Deny. Be mad. Wish that person back into existence. Be sad. And then move along, “it is what it is.”

When I was in graduate school, I learned of a different model of grief that I found to be far more sensitive and far more logical than the “five stages” that I previously had been aware of. 

Dr. J. William Worden (in his book Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner) offers a different approach to grief, calling attention to the idea that there are four “tasks” to grief, rather than five stages of it. Dr. Worden identifies the four tasks as: Accepting the Reality of the Loss, Processing the Pain of Grief, Adjusting to the World Without the Deceased, and Finding an Enduring Connection with the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life. Let’s unpack these tasks.

1. To Accept the Reality of the Loss

If you’ve recently lost a loved one to death, this is most likely the task you’re experiencing. You may be in a place where it is difficult to “believe” that the person whom you have dearly and deeply loved is no longer accessible to you. If you’ve had thoughts like “I can’t wait to call _____ and tell them…,” and then catch yourself mid-thought as you realize that you cannot call this person to share in your excitement of the day, you might be in “this task.” Perhaps you were living with this person prior to their death, you might find yourself continuing to order household routines or items in the way that person preferred, in order to deny their absence, or to keep their absence at arms length. If this is part of your experience, this is so normal. It takes time to both mentally and emotionally come to terms with the death of a loved one.

2. To Process the Pain of Grief

This second task sounds fairly self explanatory, but grief and the experience of pain is different for every person and often specific to the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one. You might be feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, discomfort, disappointment, or even anger. Again, there’s no “right way” to experience grief. Whatever you are feeling and whatever emotions you are processing in the midst of this loss is okay. It is also understandable if you need someone to walk alongside you (like seeking Grief Therapy) as you begin to identify the ways in which you are grieving.

3. To Adjust to the World Without the Deceased

Dr. Worden describes this task as having three elements: external, internal, and spiritual. These are three different avenues or aspects of life that might shift in the midst of grief and in the aftermath of a difficult loss. External adjustments are the logistics — if you’ve lost a spouse and have young children at home, suddenly you take on many of the responsibilities that your spouse used to fill. Likewise, this can look like having to learn to budget, do meal prep, take on more household chores, that may have previously been tasks that the loved one most often performed. Internal adjustments might be trickier to understand, but essentially this looks like shifting from thought processes that ask “What would _____ do?” to “What do I want to do?” Similarly, this internal adjustment looks like integrating the loss of the loved one into your sense of self. This can take on a number of forms, but recognizing and naming the ways in which the experience of the loved one’s death has changed your own outlook on life, oneself, or the world. Finally, spiritual adjustments. Often when a personal tragedy occurs, through death or otherwise, it can challenge one’s belief systems. For many, it’s uncomfortable to reexamine one’s beliefs or values, but in the midst of grief it is common to find yourself thinking through questions about life, death, God, or one’s own purpose.

4. To Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life

This task is not often spoken of, but is so important. This task is what it sounds like — to find a way to continue to connect with the person who has died, while continuing to meaningfully engage in one’s own life. This can take on a number of forms. This can look like memorializing the loved one, perhaps on their birthday or the anniversary of their death. Memorializing how? I often encourage my clients to eat the loved one’s favorite dessert and watch their favorite movie on the loved one’s birthday. Maybe you release a balloon into the sky or plant a tree on the anniversary of their death. In the day to day, maybe you talk to the loved one as you drive (I know it sounds silly) or ask God to tell the person that you are missing “Hi.”

If you are in the midst of grief and are having difficulty navigating the pain you are feeling, please reach out to us for grief therapy at Lime Tree Counseling. It is our honor to walk alongside you as you continue to process life without your loved one, wherever you may be on that path. Schedule an appointment today!