When Death Do Us Part – A Discussion on Grief Theories

When Death Do Us Part – A Discussion on Grief Theories

Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.

– George Eliot

The pandemic has affected all our lives, no matter who we are and where we are. And yet life goes on, and so does death. 

Last month Kapil lost his father to cancer after almost a year’s battle. He was almost 70, fragile and defeated. 

Two weeks back Mariko’s husband collapsed after complaining of chest pain and died en route to hospital. He was fit and healthy and was still in his thirties. 

Keeping ourselves safe from COVID-19 doesn’t guarantee safety from the inevitable – death, the ultimate leveler. Whether people die of old age, chronic disease or just out of the blue, death affects the living… the ones left behind.

Table of Contents: When Death Do Us Part – A Discussion on Grief Theories

Grief Theory

Death causes sadness, shock and grief in the survivors. According to American Psychological Association (APA), grief is defined as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.” Often, grief can increase the risk of mental health problems which makes grief a topic of interest for psychologists. In 1917, Sigmund Freud, in his essay Mourning and Melancholia first introduced the theory on grief, called the “Grief Work”. According to him, “grief work” is about letting go of the dead and moving on with life. He recommended the following process: 

  1. freeing the bereaved from bondage to the deceased; 
  2. readjustment to new life circumstances without the deceased; and 
  3. building of new relationships.

Stage Theory of Grief

The next theory of grief that gripped the world came from Kubler-Ross called the “5 Stages of Grief”. She postulated that people go through 5 different progressive stages as they cope with the death of their loved ones.

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Anger, resentment and guilt
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

It was believed that every individual passes through the above stages, in the given order, as they bereave for the dead. You can read more about it here.

Dual Process Model

As the popularity of the 5-stage theory waned and doubts clouded its credibility for its rigidness, researchers once again looked at new ways to understand grief. Stroebe and Schutt (1999) theorized the Dual Process model which acknowledged the fact that each individual may cope with grief differently. In the Dual-Process model, there are two modes of functioning – 

(1) loss orientation (emotion focused coping)

(2) restoration orientation (problem focused coping) 

To cope with grief, an individual oscillates / moves back and forth between these two orientations without any order. 

Grief Tasks

In 2008, Worden theorized that an individual has to accomplish 4 tasks to complete their process of mourning and thereby re-establish equilibrium. He also acknowledged that completing the tasks does not require a particular order.

Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss

Task 2: To work through the pain of grief

Task 3: To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing

Task 4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life 

Grief Disorder 

Although psychologists refer to terms like complicated grief, pathological / maladaptive grief, there is no official recognized grief disorder yet. So, grief disorders cannot be clinically diagnosed. This could be because although grief is a universal reaction to a significant loss, it can be an absolutely personal process based on the individual’s cognitive, social, cultural and even spiritual background. 

DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition) has placed Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD) in its appendix to encourage and invite more research for grief-related disorders. This shows grief, as a subject of research, requires more exploration, and grief-related theories are still in the process of evolving.

Going forward

Although studies on grief and coping have made significant advancements from the rigid stage theory to more fluid models, what is certain is that grieving is a unique individual experience. Mourning differs not only from person to person but culturally, religiously and spiritually as well. The funeral rituals are different and each ritual and culture can also influence the grieving process.

Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all theory for grief and nor can there be one ideal way to complete the mourning process. Grief theories can only help you understand certain feelings you are going through or your reactions, especially if you find them confusing. And if you cannot relate to the theories, that too is alright. Grief theories are not exhaustive and how you mourn is completely subjective and as unique as the individual that you are.

Whether you feel excessive pain or you feel absolutely numb – you do not owe anyone your mourning. However, if you feel you are having a hard time dealing with your emotions, you can always seek professional help. Most psychotherapists/counselors are skilled to help you deal with your grief.

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