Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning
We try to keep a good mix here on WYG of concrete, creative, practical, and outside-the-box thinking about grief. Back in April we began a series on some very concrete information on grief, delving into the topic of grief models. We started with the theory that pop-culture loves and everyone knows – the five stages of grief. If you missed it, make sure you check out our post on the 5 Things You Should Know About the 5 Stages of Grief. Today may not be the most creative or exciting post, but it is important stuff.
As we mentioned in that post, Kubler-Ross’s Five Stage model really put grief theory on the map by opening up the conversation about the dying process, death, and grief. Over the years other theories have emerged, many of which have transitioned from the concept of “stages” to the concept of “tasks”. I know I know, this all sounds very academic. I can feel some people’s eyes starting to glaze over and browser windows starting to close. Bear with me here – this is not just academic and may prove extremely relevant to you – promise! If you ever thought that your grief didn’t fit in the five stages, one of these task models may resonate with you.
Today we are going to talk about William Worden, who describes four tasks of mourning in his book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy”. Don’t worry, we are just covering the down and dirty basics. You can always pick up Worden’s book if you want to dive further into his theory.
Worden suggests that there are four tasks one must accomplish for “the process of mourning to be completed” and “equilibrium to be reestablished”. He makes clear these are in no particular order, though there is some natural order in that completion of some tasks presuppose completion of another task. He acknowledges that people may need to revisit certain tasks over time, that grief is not linear, and that it is difficult to determine a timeline for completing the grief tasks. What are the tasks, you are probably asking? Here we go . . .
Alright, so what is the deal with these tasks? How do you know if you have accomplished them or not? Well the first task can be both simple and complex. There are basic ways one can accept the reality of a loss: going through the rituals of a funeral or memorial, beginning to speak about (and think about) the person in past tense, etc. On a more complex level, there is accepting the reality of the significance of the loss. For example, one may speak of someone in the past tense and accept their death, but may downplay the significance of their relationship with that person, denying the impact the loss will have. On a basic level they may have accepted the reality of the loss, but on a deeper level they will not have accomplished this task until they have fully accepted the depth of the relationship and correlating impact. Another common struggle with this task is around acceptance of the mechanism of the death. A death by suicide, overdose, or other stigmatized death may present challenges to accomplishing this task if family or friends are unable to accept the reality of the mechanism of the death.
Ok, I know, I am starting to sound abstract and academic. Back on track to keep this simple and practical: task two is to work through the pain of grief. This may sound extremely broad because . . .well, it is! But that isn’t a bad thing. Rather than attempting to identify all the emotions of grief that one may experience and need to work through, Worden’s model acknowledges that each person and each loss will mean working through a range of different emotions. From sadness, fear, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, and anger to guilt, blame, shame, relief, and countless others, there are many emotions a griever contends with. What is important in this task is acknowledging, talking about, and understanding these complex emotions in order to work through them. The danger, or course, is denying one’s feelings and avoiding them. This tendency can be exacerbated by society’s discomfort with the feelings that accompany grief, so the griever may feel like they shouldn’t feel or acknowledge these difficult emotions.
Task three is adjusting to the environment in which the deceased is missing. Worden acknowledges that this task can also mean very different things to people depending on the relationship of the person who has died, as well as the roles that are impacted by the loss. This readjustment happens over an extended period of time, and can require internal adjustments, external adjustments, and spiritual adjustments. It may take a significant period of time just to realize the different roles their loved one performed or internal and spiritual adjustments that are required. This can be especially difficult for widows, who may need to learn a wide array of new skills and tasks, ranging from bill paying, parenting, and taking care of the home, to environmental changes, such as living alone, doing things alone, and redefining the self without the other person. This can also mean adjusting to a new spiritual environment, which may have been changed by the experience of the death. This task requires developing the necessary skills to move confidently forward in the changed environments – internal, external, and spiritual.
Finally, task four to find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. Worden re-thought and reworded this last task several times, but this is the wording in the most recent edition of his book. I have to say that this wording still isn’t working perfectly for me, because though I understand what he is trying to get at, the phrasing “new life” puts me off a bit. In his previous editions this task was worded as “to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life”. As a person who hates the term “move on” I struggled with that one as well. Before that it was “withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in a new relationship”, which Worden admits sounded mechanical and simplistic. Though Worden has worked through task four in several iterations, and it still isn’t worded in a way that resonates perfectly for me, what is clear is that Worden is always refining and re-evaluating his own theory. As our understanding of grief grows, Worden has demonstrated a committment to make sure his tasks reflect his new and evolving understanding. Which is awesome. We love anyone who is willing to adapt and change their theory over time to better reflect changing understanding!
The gist of task four is this – to find an appropriate, ongoing connection in our emotional lives with person who has died, while allowing us to continue living. Like the other tasks, this can mean varying things to various grievers. But it often means allowing for thoughts and memories, while beginning to meaningfully engage in things that bring pleasure, new things, or new relationships. For Worden, not accomplishing this task is to not live. It is the sense that life stopped when that person died and that one is not able to resume life in a meaningful way, with a different sense of connection to the person who has died. This last task can take a long time and be one of the most difficult to accomplish.
So, there it is in a nutshell. For Worden, mourning is successfully completed when one has completed all four of these tasks. What is important for us to remember as regular grievers? Just as we said for Kubler-Ross’s model, it is important to remember that this is just a theory. There are many grief theories and none are proven to be absolute truth, but rather hypotheses with some evidence to support them, and some evidence to refute them. These are certainly helpful and relevant tasks, but if you do not feel like you have completed them that is not a reason to panic. It may mean you are still working through the process, it may mean that this is just not the model that best reflects your own experience. Grief is unique for all of us. If you are concerned that you are “stuck” on one of these tasks or need additional support with your grief, check out our post on seeking professional support.
What do you think about Worden’s theory? Leave a comment to let us know!
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