Tasks of Mourning

Psychologist Dr. William Worden’s four tasks of mourning give grounding to much of grief research today. Worden saw mourning as the outward expression of grief. The tasks of mourning, in Worden’s approach, while numbered, aren’t a series of steps as much as a list of processes that bereaved people need to address over time:

1.   Accept the reality of the loss.

2.   Process the pain of grief.

3.   Adjust to a world without the deceased.

4.   Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.[1]

Worden’s work is among the most cited in thanatology.

Needs of Mourning

Psychologist Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who studied under Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, developed six “needs” of mourning. They’re based on Worden’s four tasks.

These needs of mourning emerged from observing and supporting bereaved people throughout a long career. Wolfelt’s needs of mourning offer two specific ways to adjust to the world without the deceased: remembering the person who died and developing a new self-identity. He uniquely adds the need to search for meaning (identified prior to Kessler’s work) and allowing other people to support them in loss. Importantly, these needs also aren’t linear or one-and-done objectives.

Below, I’ve adapted Wolfelt’s needs, changing his terms slightly and adding my understanding of mourning as love’s ongoing work:

Accept the realities of the death.[2] There’s a primary loss when someone dies or someone or something beloved is lost. But there are many realities or changes to life that stem from that primary loss. Some realities might be called secondary losses, but certainly life paths change from a death, and such changes aren’t always losses. Over time, some are unanticipated gains in love.

Embrace the pain of the loss.[3] Grief hurts, and trying to ignore it doesn’t work. Love requires walking into the hot coals of loss or, minimally, sticking around to feel this pain and grief’s multiple other emotions. These emotions are God’s gifts to the bereaved, a genuine way to reflect the relationship’s importance and to experience ongoing love.

Remembering What You Lost

Remember the person who died or what you lost.[4] Remembering is about putting something back together, reconnecting that which has been removed. People often express that a death is like an amputation. (Re)membering is to make one whole in love if not in fact. Even difficult memories honor the love and the loss of having been in relationship with someone or something.

Find yourself (again).[5] In grief, people lose a sense of who they are. Their deceased loved ones have reflected the bereaved as the essence of loveable creatures; when they die or otherwise are gone, the reflection the deceased offered is gone, too. People need to develop a new sense of self, which may be functional (such as getting a job or learning new household tasks) or, more fundamentally, recognizing oneself without the beloved: Who am I now? There’s re-creation in seeing oneself as loveable even when in pain and especially when imperfect.

Search for meaning.[6] Grief brings existential questions of how to live in a world of struggle and pain. Searching for meaning awakens one to everything beyond this physical world. Although meaning can be found in simple answers to how something tragic happened or through actions like volunteerism, deeper answers are found through the soul-searching questions about spirit and love that we’re pondering in this book.

Don’t Isolate

Stay connected.[7] Grief happens uniquely in each person. Mourning can happen in the social setting of family, friendship, and communities. While not everyone is gifted in supporting the bereaved, some are. Those people will lovingly listen, unselfishly journey with the bereaved on difficult paths, and thoughtfully share their own griefs. Although a desire to be alone in grief is understandable and has a place, it’s important for the bereaved to avoid overly self-isolating and to allow supportive people to be present for them.

Excerpted from Grief on the Road to Emmaus: A Monastic Approach to Journeying With the Bereaved, by Beth Hewett

Reach Beth Hewett at www.goodwordsforgrieving.com

Read more from Beth Hewett at Helping Co-workers After a Loss – Open to Hope

[1] Worden, 41–50.

[2] Alan Wolfelt, Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers (Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2005), 166. The original is “Accept the reality of the loss.”

[3] Wolfelt, 167. This need reflects Wolfelt’s original expression.

[4] Wolfelt, 171. The original is “Remember the person who died.”

[5] Wolfelt, 173. The original is “Develop a new self-identity.”

[6] Wolfelt, 175. This need reflects Wolfelt’s original expression.

[7] Wolfelt, 178. The original is “Let others help you.”

Beth Hewett

Beth L. Hewett knows grief from personal experience, and she has a heart for those who grieve their loved ones. Her desire to help other bereaved people led to her work as a Certified Thanatologist (CT) with the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and as a Certified Compassionate Bereavement Care™ Provider with the MISS Foundation. She also has earned a certificate in Death and Grief Studies from the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is a former National Catholic Ministry for the Bereaved Minister of Consolation Trainer.

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