The Four Phases and the Four Tasks of Grief

Many Theories Exist about How We Cope with Grief

Senior man sitting on bed
Feeling lonely or isolated is common while grieving a death. Photo © Allison Michael Orenstein/Stone/Getty Images

While many people have heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her "DABDA concept" of the five stages of grief experienced by the dying, other grief-related theories involving stages, phases or tasks exist. This article offers summaries of two grief-related concepts involving the four phases of grief, and the four tasks of mourning.

Author's note: Although this article describes four phases and four tasks of grief, our reaction to the death of a loved one is deeply personal and everyone will experience their grief response differently. You might move through the phases quickly, for example, or relatively slowly; you might move through them in a different order; or you might skip a phase or task altogether, or experience one more than once. However you move through the grieving process, just trust that it will be the right way for you as you adjust to the reality of the loss.

The Four Phases of Grief

In the 1970s, British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes and psychologist John Bowlby proposed a concept involving four stages or phases of grief:

1. Shock and Numbness. This phase immediately follows a loss to death. The grieving person feels numb, which is a self-defense mechanism that allows him or her to survive emotionally in the immediate aftermath of loss.

2. Yearning and Searching. Also referred to as pining, this stage is characterized by the grieving person longing or yearning for the deceased to return to fill the void created by his or her death. Many emotions are experienced and expressed during this time, such as weeping, anger, anxiety, preoccupation and confusion.

3. Disorganization and Despair. The grieving person often desires to withdraw and disengage from others and the activities he or she regularly enjoyed during this phase. Having accepted the reality of the loss, the bereaved's feelings of searching and yearning become less intense while feelings of apathy, anger, despair hopelessness and questioning increase.

4. Reorganization and Recovery. In the final phase, the grieving person begins to return to a new state of "normal." Weight loss experienced during intense grieving might reverse, energy levels increase, and an interest in returning to former or new enjoyable activities returns. Grief never ends but thoughts of sadness and despair diminish while positive memories of the deceased take over.

Because everyone grieves in his or her own way and own pace, there is no specific or "usual" amount of time in which people experience/complete these phases. In some cases, receiving bereavement counseling and/or joining a bereavement support group can help a grieving individual move through the phases more fluidly.

The Four Tasks of Mourning

In 1982, American psychologist William J. Worden published his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, which offered his concept of the four tasks of mourning:

1. Accept the Reality of the Loss. Coming full face with the reality that the person is dead and will not return is the first task a grieving individual needs to complete. Without accomplishing this, he or she will not be able to continue through the mourning process.

2. Work Through the Pain of Grief. Our reaction to the death of a loved one is often painful, and we will experience a wide range of emotions, such as anger, guilt, fear, depression, sadness, despair, etc. This task takes time and requires the bereaved to acknowledge these different emotions and the pain, rather than suppressing or avoiding these feelings, in order to work through them.

3. Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing. In addition to emotional and/or psychological adjustments, this task might require adopting a role or function(s) that the deceased once performed, and will vary based on the nature of the relationship. For example, if someone's spouse or partner dies, this task might involve the survivor handling household finances moving forward, raising a child alone, finding a job or returning to a career, etc.

4. Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased While Embarking on a New Life. While nothing can compel the bereaved to completely forget about his or her relationship with the deceased, the goal is to find an appropriate place in his or her emotional life moving forward and to begin living again. This might require letting go of attachments so that new, meaningful relationships can begin to form.

Working through these four tasks of mourning can help the bereaved come to terms with their loss and return to a new state of normalcy. Again, involvement in bereavement support groups or seeking grief counseling can help individuals move through these tasks.

Edited and updated by Chris Raymond, March 27, 2016.

Related Information You Might Find Helpful:
VIDEO: William Worden Discusses His Four Mourning Tasks
5 Myths About Grief and Mourning
Grief: What's Normal and What's Not?
10 Tips to Help Yourself if You're Grieving

Sources:
Common Problems: End of Life Care by Barry M. Kinzbrunner, Neal J. Weinreb, and Joel S. Policzer.

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