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Four tasks of grief

Published: Jul 24, 08:25 am

A psychiatrist colleague of mine once said to me, ‘Grief is the rent that we pay for living.’ As well as gains, life is also about losses; loss of youth, loss of employment, loss of health and most painfully, the loss of loved ones. As Simon and Garfunkel once sang – ‘If I never would have loved, I never would have cried.’

So, how do we negotiate this most challenging of life’s journeys, when someone close to us dies? What ‘tasks’ are there for the bereaved person to work through, so that that individual may emerge strengthened from his or her grief?

The experience of grief can be incredibly complex, so that the emotions that assail us can be manifold, including sadness, guilt, anger, disbelief, blame and numbness.

Describing, therefore, the grief process as involving four tasks cannot help but be an oversimplification of an often complicated emotional journey.

It is important to know that these four tasks can be re-experienced in a cyclical way at successively deepening levels.

An initial aspect of grief work may manifest as follows:

The first task, accepting the reality of the loss, is achieved at an intellectual level, when, for example, we acknowledge that our spouse, who has endured a lengthy illness, is dead.

The second task is accomplished at a relatively shallow level, as we weep after the initial shock begins to sink in.

As we move into the third task, that of acquiring new skills (here I am thinking that skills refer to such things as calling for help, sharing one’s vulnerability), we may have to, at such a sensitive time, encounter new people, as we enlist the help of the clergyman and the undertaker.

The first three tasks, therefore, have been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. It may be days or weeks later, when, walking through our front door, the absence of our spouse’s warm greeting hits us, and we break down in tears. Here both task one and two are being worked through again, perhaps at a deeper level. It is when we have the courage to ask for some friend to sleep over to be there for comfort, we are dealing once again with the third task.

Maybe a week later, some friends invite you out for a meal. You accept, but soon afterwards realize that what you always did as a couple, you will now have to endure as ‘half’a couple. This comes as a shock, and for a short while the tears flow once again. Sadly, you phone up your friends, declining the offer, explaining to them that you need a little more time before you can socialize in such a way again.

In this scenario, the three tasks have been processed for the third time on a new level, i.e. the realization of loss, the expression of emotion and the honest opening up to others.

This normal grief process may have to be repeated many more times, as new scenarios arise. At first, the pain may be intense, but eventually, at a deeper level, life’s new configuration becomes the norm.

It is only when these first three tasks have been worked through many times, that the person is ready to accomplish the 4th task, that of reinvesting their energy in new ways.

Only after many times of realizing that their partner will not be there to share in their experiences will there be a definitive letting go. The bereaved may even begin to appreciate the benefits of being single. The energy that sustained the attachment to the deceased, can finally be released and reinvested in new experiences, new people.

This does not mean that we must forget. The fond memories of our loved one are there to be cherished and live on. As Thomas Moore once wrote -

“Fond memories brings the light of other days around me.’