The Four Tasks of Mourning

Mourning is the task of processing the grief but how does someone mourn? How do we process grief?

By Momentous Institute | Jun 02, 2021
Four Tasks Of Mourning

This post is a continuation of two posts: Understanding Grief and Understanding Mourning.

In previous posts, we mentioned that grief is the natural response to something of value that is lost and that mourning is the task of processing the grief. You may be wondering, “Yes, that sounds right, but how does someone mourn? How do we process grief?”

We’d like to share about the work of Dr. J. William Worden in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. Dr. Worden’s work supports the idea of mourning as a task, a process that one must go through to manage grief. And to support this work, he proposes the four tasks of mourning, which are:

1. Accept the Reality of the Loss

2. Process the Grief and Pain

3. Adjust to Life After the Loss

4. Maintain a Connection While Embracing the New

 

Let’s take a look at each of these four tasks in a little more detail.

1. Accept the Reality of the Loss

An important component of mourning is to acknowledge the loss. This may come more naturally in some cases, such as with the death of a loved one. In this case, it is pretty clear that there was a loss and that one may be experiencing grief. In other cases, such as with the loss of a job, grief may not be the first thing that comes to mind. You may first think that you’re sad, or anxious, or worried about money or security. It may take some digging to recognize that what’s underneath all of that is grief. Once you’ve acknowledged the loss, you can begin to mourn it. But without taking the time to recognize that what you’re feeling is grief, it’s hard to move forward.

2. Process the Grief and Pain

This is the tough part. In order to properly mourn, you have to take the time (and it may take some time!) to move through the pain. There are likely big feelings involved in this process. It may mean days, months, or even longer, of crying. But crying through it and feeling the pain is essential to mourning. In this step of the journey, it’s important to process through these emotions in a healthy way, whether that means journaling, talking with a trusted friend, colleague, faith leader or mentor, or a seeking professional help through a licensed therapist. Feeling the emotions that accompany grief is part of the process of mourning, and so is working through those emotions to be able to express them and make sense of them.

3. Adjust to Life After the Loss

Life after loss can sometimes seem impossible. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you know what it feels like to think that the world surely can’t continue to spin without that person. Adjusting to life after that? Seemingly impossible. But one of the tasks of mourning is just that – finding out how to keep moving even after loss. Part of this process involves identifying what it is that you miss about the old life and figuring out how to make a shift in the new life. For example, if you’re grieving the loss of your old life, where you got to work in close proximity to others, got to pop in to say hi to colleagues, and got to give hugs to anyone you wanted to at any time, you may need to find a way to adjust to a new life where you’re working from home or in a closed-door office. Maybe virtual pop-ins will do the trick for the time being, maybe you can find creative ways to gather safely. Whatever it is you’re grieving, the work of this task is to identify what elements of the loss you’re missing most, and how to fill that void in a healthy and constructive way.

4. Maintain a Connection While Embracing the New

Ultimately, someone who has worked through the tasks of mourning will be able to maintain a connection to what was lost and embrace the new life in a healthy and constructive way. This may mean keeping grandma’s traditions alive at Channukah while also adding in new traditions that your nieces and nephews came up with. It might mean staying in touch with your old colleagues while also pursuing your next job opportunity. It might mean putting up pictures of your students in your home classroom while teaching remotely. In whatever form it takes, this task is the act of finding out what you want to keep alive from the loss, and in what ways you want to move forward into this new territory.

These tasks are not necessarily linear, and someone may move from one to another and back to the first one. There is also not a set timeline on what is appropriate for this process. Each person manages their grief in a different way, based on their personality, the nature of the grief, their life circumstances and their own experiences. This isn’t necessarily meant to be prescriptive, but instead lays out the elements that Dr. Worden feels are essential to healing from grief.

We will all experience grief and loss in our lives; it is a side effect of being human. The best thing we can do for our own mental health is to take on the tasks of mourning, to choose to do the work to process through the grief, so that we can come out on the other side. Not to diminish what was lost, but to honor the value it brought to our lives and to maintain a connection to it, while also embarking on a new path forward.