Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning

Posted by on Jun 24, 2013 in Blog, For Professionals, Grief Theories | 11 Comments

We try to keep a good mix here on WYG of concrete, creative, practical, and outside-the-box thinking about grief.  Back in April we began a series on some very concrete information on grief, delving into the topic of grief models.  We started with the theory that pop-culture loves and everyone knows – the five stages of grief.  If you missed it, make sure you check out our post on the 5 Things You Should Know About the 5 Stages of Grief.  Today may not be the most creative or exciting post, but it is important stuff.

As we mentioned in that post, Kubler-Ross’s Five Stage model really put grief theory on the map by opening up the conversation about the dying process, death, and grief.  Over the years other theories have emerged, many of which have transitioned from the concept of “stages” to the concept of “tasks”.  I know I know, this all sounds very academic.  I can feel some people’s eyes starting to glaze over and browser windows starting to close.  Bear with me here – this is not just academic and may prove extremely relevant to you – promise!  If you ever thought that your grief didn’t fit in the five stages, one of these task models may resonate with you.

Today we are going to talk about William Worden, who describes four tasks of mourning in his book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy”.  Don’t worry, we are just covering the down and dirty basics.  You can always pick up Worden’s book if you want to dive further into his theory.

Worden suggests that there are four tasks one must accomplish for “the process of mourning to be completed” and “equilibrium to be reestablished”.  He makes clear these are in no particular order, though there is some natural order in that completion of some tasks presuppose completion of another task.  He acknowledges that people may need to revisit certain tasks over time, that grief is not linear, and that it is difficult to determine a timeline for completing the grief tasks.  What are the tasks, you are probably asking?    Here we go . . .

worden tasks of mourning 1

Alright, so what is the deal with these tasks?  How do you know if you have accomplished them or not?  Well the first task can be both simple and complex.  There are basic ways one can accept the reality of a loss: going through the rituals of a funeral or memorial, beginning to speak about (and think about) the person in past tense, etc.  On a more complex level, there is accepting the reality of the significance of the loss.  For example, one may speak of someone in the past tense and accept their death, but may downplay the significance of their relationship with that person, denying the impact the loss will have.  On a basic level they may have accepted the reality of the loss, but on a deeper level they will not have accomplished this task until they have fully accepted the depth of the relationship and correlating impact.  Another common struggle with this task is around acceptance of the mechanism of the death.  A death by suicide, overdose, or other stigmatized death may present challenges to accomplishing this task if family or friends are unable to accept the reality of the mechanism of the death.

Ok, I know, I am starting to sound abstract and academic.  Back on track to keep this simple and practical: task two is to work through the pain of grief.  This may sound extremely broad because . . .well, it is!  But that isn’t a bad thing.  Rather than attempting to identify all the emotions of grief that one may experience and need to work through, Worden’s model acknowledges that each person and each loss will mean working through a range of different emotions.  From sadness, fear, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, and anger to guilt, blame, shame, relief, and countless others, there are many emotions a griever contends with.  What is important in this task is acknowledging, talking about, and understanding these complex emotions in order to work through them.  The danger, or course, is denying one’s feelings and avoiding them.  This tendency can be exacerbated by society’s discomfort with the feelings that accompany grief, so the griever may feel like they shouldn’t feel or acknowledge these difficult emotions.

Task three is adjusting to the environment in which the deceased is missing.  Worden acknowledges that this task can also mean very different things to people depending on the relationship of the person who has died, as well as the roles that are impacted by the loss. This readjustment happens over an extended period of time, and can require internal adjustments, external adjustments, and spiritual adjustments. It may take a significant period of time just to realize the different roles their loved one performed or internal and spiritual adjustments that are required.  This can be especially difficult for widows, who may need to learn a wide array of new skills and tasks, ranging from bill paying, parenting, and taking care of the home,  to environmental changes, such as living alone, doing things alone, and redefining the self without the other person. This can also mean adjusting to a new spiritual environment, which may have been changed by the experience of the death. This task requires developing the necessary skills to move confidently forward in the changed environments – internal, external, and spiritual.

Finally, task four to find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.  Worden re-thought and reworded this last task several times, but this is the wording in the most recent edition of his book.  I have to say that this wording still isn’t working perfectly for me, because though I understand what he is trying to get at, the phrasing “new life” puts me off a bit.  In his previous editions this task was worded as “to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life”.  As a person who hates the term “move on” I struggled with that one as well.  Before that it was “withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in a new relationship”, which Worden admits sounded mechanical and simplistic. Though Worden has worked through task four in several iterations, and it still isn’t worded in a way that resonates perfectly for me, what is clear is that Worden is always refining and re-evaluating his own theory.  As our understanding of grief grows, Worden has demonstrated a committment to make sure his tasks reflect his new and evolving understanding.  Which is awesome.  We love anyone who is willing to adapt and change their theory over time to better reflect changing understanding!

The gist of task four is this – to find an appropriate, ongoing connection in our emotional lives with person who has died, while allowing us to continue living. Like the other tasks, this can mean varying things to various grievers.  But it often means allowing for thoughts and memories, while beginning to meaningfully engage in things that bring pleasure, new things, or new relationships.  For Worden, not accomplishing this task is to not live.   It is the sense that life stopped when that person died and that one is not able to resume life in a meaningful way, with a different sense of connection to the person who has died.  This last task can take a long time and be one of the most difficult to accomplish.

So, there it is in a nutshell.  For Worden, mourning is successfully completed when one has completed all four of these tasks.  What is important for us to remember as regular grievers?  Just as we said for Kubler-Ross’s model, it is important to remember that this is just a theory.  There are many grief theories and none are proven to be absolute truth, but rather hypotheses with some evidence to support them, and some evidence to refute them.  These are certainly helpful and relevant tasks, but if you do not feel like you have completed them that is not a reason to panic.  It may mean you are still working through the process, it may mean that this is just not the model that best reflects your own experience.  Grief is unique for all of us.  If you are concerned that you are “stuck” on one of these tasks or need additional support with your grief, check out our post on seeking professional support.

What do you think about Worden’s theory? Leave a comment to let us know!

Glad to find a site that gives you practical, concrete information mixed in with creative and outside-the-box tools for coping?  Make sure to subscribe to get our updates right to your inbox.  We promise our next post won’t be nearly this dry!

11 Comments

  1. Louisa Hill
    June 24, 2013

    I can see the validity of Worden’s theory. I am definitely experiencing much of this. I see myself as currently working through task three, and, yes, it is difficult. Thank you so much for providing understanding.

    Reply
    • Litsa
      June 25, 2013

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Louisa! I do think many of these grief theories allow us an interesting way to reflect on our own process. Glad to hear Worden’s tasks resonated with your experience.

      Reply
  2. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)
    June 24, 2013

    Excellent post, Litsa ~ I really like that you are offering to your readers such accurate and easily understood explanations of these various grief theories ~ Thank you! I’ve added a link to your post on my Grief Healing Pinterest board (http://pinterest.com/griefhealing/grief-healing/), and it’s been re-pinned several times already!

    Reply
    • Litsa
      June 25, 2013

      Thanks so much Marty. I think it is a shame there is still such a disconnect between grief theory and everyday grievers. Slowly but surely all of us out here blogging away will get the word out that there are lots of grief theories that grievers may find very helpful — far more than just the 5 Stages everyone knows so well. Thanks for sharing the post on pinterest!

      Reply
  3. Kiri (The Angel Zoe Kindness Project)
    July 21, 2013

    I feel a good word is integrating the grief into your life. You will never “move on” but you do integrate the grief and feel it alongside everything else, including joy which is not its opposite.
    Kiri (The Angel Zoe Kindness Project) recently posted…Phone Calls from HeavenMy Profile

    Reply
    • Litsa
      July 21, 2013

      Agreed!! “Move on” and “closure” are words people seem to say to grievers all the time, and it sets up such an unrealistic expectation for what grief is all about. It drives me crazy! Integration is a much better way to think about it; too bad you rarely here that thrown around in casual conversation about grief! :)

      I just checked out your Angel Zoe Kindness Project — what an incredible way to remember Zoe! Made my day . . .

      Reply
    • Mary Fitz
      April 9, 2014

      I stumbled upon this website also while doing a little research on Worden’s 4 tasks. I agree Kiri, integrating is good word. I lost a 24 year old son 14 years ago and that grief has become a part of me because my son will always be a part of me. A poem I once read says “So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us as we remember them.”
      I don’t mind the term “move on” because that indicates we are not “stuck” in the time and space of the actual death, but I like to say we need to “reinvest” in life. As you say, we are capable of, once again, being joyful.

      Reply
  4. Korri Anderson
    November 4, 2013

    I stumbled upon your blog while searching for articles related to Worden’s Four Tasks for a paper. I’m a graduate social work student, and I’m taking a Loss & Grief class this semester. Three months earlier, I turned 40; I used to think that this was “old” when I was younger. And I found more gray hair on my head. Two months after that, I quit a job because my physical health is declining. Two weeks before school started, I had to put my dog to sleep. I know this ended his suffering, but I missed my “second son.” The following week, my only human child moved away to college. I am proud of his accomplishments, but the house is too quiet. I had defined my life to my job, my son, and my dog. I had experienced other losses and deaths – some horrific – and this class has helped me tremendously on many levels. Not only have I been validated for how I’ve coped and can cope with changes, but I can also relate and educate future clients in their journey. I enjoyed your sensibility and humor in making these concepts easier to understand. Thank you for being a wonderful resource for others in their time of need!

    Reply
    • Litsa
      November 4, 2013

      Thanks Korri- Glad you stumbled on our blog enjoyed the post. I am so sorry to hear about the various losses you have experienced recently- that is a lot in a short period of time. I am glad the course is helpful and wish you the best in your program- I am a social worker too!

      Reply
  5. Helen Scarr
    December 10, 2013

    What a treat to find this blog. I am scouting around for research and information about Worden’s work just now and happened across this site.
    I am preparing to do some research for my prof doc on the topic: ‘How is suicide grief integrated into families?’
    After my youngest son suicided I remember undertaking the task of responding to all the cards and letters we received. I hand wrote each card and made my response like a mantra, repeating the same words in thanks to the person for their condolences following the death/suicide of my son. Then added individual bits in response to individual messages. It took six weeks to complete. It was such an awful task to be writing those words about the death of my son and yet I found it quite soothing. When it was done, I really felt as though I believed and accepted his death. It was a good thing to do.

    Reply
    • Litsa
      December 10, 2013

      I am so sorry for the death of your son. I have to say, I have been one to view the tradition of thank you notes after a death to be a bit of a cruel tradition for the griever. This is great insight and helpful to know that it is something that ultimately was helpful for you.

      You research sounds very interesting. You may be interested in our post on disenfranchised grief as well, since that is such a complicating factor after a suicide death http://whatsyourgrief.com/disenfranchised-grief/

      Thanks and hope you’ll keep visiting our site!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge