What is “healthy” grief?

When it comes to mental health there are few hard and fast rules, and grief is no different. Between differing genetics and life experience, no two people are exactly alike, and so we each grieve in a unique way. This may be a difficult idea to digest – after all, humans are literally wired to categorize (“good” & “bad,” “safe” & “unsafe”) and we tend to bring this same heuristic to grief (“healthy” & “unhealthy,” “over it” vs. “still affected”). I encourage you, though, to take a less heavy-handed view. An individual’s history (their genetics and life experience) determines how grief occurs, not some pre-determined list of “should’s.”

So rather than prescriptions, I will share what I have found to be some useful ideas about grief. First are two ideas that I’ve already written about: the stages of grief is largely myth and the risk-factors that increase the chance someone will have a complicated course of grief. The two I will write about here focus on grief over time.

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The first is William Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning.” Like the stages, these are not linear steps.  Instead, they are abstract processes. When talking with someone about their experience of grief I might be wondering: How much time and attention have they given each of these steps? How much are each of these tasks sources of distress, or sources of comfort, for them? The four tasks are:

  • To Accept the Reality of the Loss
  • To Work Through the Pain of Grief
  • To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing
  • To Find an Enduring Connection With the Deceased While Embarking on a New Life

The second idea is Margaret Stroebe and Hank Schut’s “Dual Process Model.” While the content may look familiar, unlike the previous two, this model has no list of stages. Instead, it highlights two types of activities:

  •  Loss – activities that are directly related to grief. These may include thinking about the person who has died and/or experiencing a range of emotions
  •  Restoration – activities that represent adapting to the loss. These may include developing new activities that the loss requires (i.e. finding companionship in others, if the deceased was the primary companion).

The “Dual Process Model” posits that in “healthy” grief, people oscillate back and forth between “loss” and “restoration” activities. That is, in the morning someone may be crying in bed (loss) while later that afternoon that same person may be applying for a new job (restoration). The time period surrounding the oscillation (i.e. loss to restoration in one day in this example) varies by person and circumstances, but the general idea is that the more flexibly someone can oscillate between loss and restoration throughout their daily life, the better they will feel.

With all that said, “completing” the Four Tasks of Mourning or “becoming flexible” at shifting between loss and restoration activities does not necessarily mean “healthy” grief. It may, but in my experience, individual factors are just as (if not more) important than any of these ideas.

Interested in learning more about the possible benefits of individualized grief counseling? Give me a call at 720-515-9427.

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