As you may or may not be aware, we’ve been covering some grief theory stuff around here for the past couple months. As a griever I realize it can be infuriating trying to imagine a bunch of stuffy academics sitting around generalizing and theorizing about the anguish of grief. They come up with stages and phases and tasks and labels that you may find totally foreign to your own experience. Someone tells you that you are in the "anger" stage and it makes you want to punch them in the face for thinking they know something about your grief. We get it. Theories have a place, and yet grief is as unique as the griever. The theories aren’t going to work for everyone at ever time (I mean, these academics don’t even agree with each other! We wouldn’t expect you to agree with all of them). So why bother talking about them?
Some of us are rational grievers and it is helpful to know what those academics think about grief. Sometimes just one little part of their theory resonates with us, or one phase they describe is something we are personally struggling with. So this series is our little corner of the internet where, between crazy posts on photography, journaling, baking, and other coping, you can learn a little bit about grief theory and decide whether any of it is helpful to you. It may not be, and that is okay.
Disclaimer: this series is NOT chronological! We started out with some of the grief theory household-names, like Kubler-Ross and Worden, and now we are going back to fill in some gaps. Because although Kubler-Ross gets all the glory for opening the death, dying, and grief dialogue, there were people before her talking about grief, even if it was on a much smaller scale. And they deserve a mention too.
John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychologist and psychiatrist who was a pioneer of attachment theory in children. Bowlby had a strong interest in troubled youth and in determining what family circumstances contributed to healthy versus unhealthy development of children. Working closely with student Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby speculated and tested theories that attachment was a survival mechanism in human evolution, and that children mourned separations from their primary caregivers. His theory of how children form concrete attachments based on actual relationships, rather than fantasies, was a break from the thinking of psychoanalysis of the time.
This was a crucial shift away from Freudian ideas, as well as a break from the idea that attachments developed only through rewards. Bowlby looked at evolutionary biology and other developing scientific study to explore his theory of attachment. He set out to establish a data-driven theory and in 1969 began release of his famous trilogy, Attachment and Loss. After observing the attachment and separation of children and parents, Bowlby asserted a new way of understanding these bonds and the implications of breaking these attachments based on a social system that develop simply by a parent and child being together.
Alright, I know I am losing some of you here in abstract, academia land. I can practically hear people screaming “get to the point!” and “what does this have to do with grief?!?”. We are going to keep it really simple here: Bowlby ultimately took all his observations and theories about attachment and separation and applied them to grief and bereavement. He said there is a relational system in these attachment relationships. These attachments form a system in which the individuals are constantly impacting each other, trying to maintain their relationship in different ways. When a loss occurs Bowlby suggested that grief was a normal adaptive response. He felt the response was based on the environment and psychological make-up of the griever, and that there were normal reactions one might expect. The ‘affectional bond’ had been broken, which result in grief. He later, with his colleague Colin Murray Parkes, broke down this natural adaptive grief response into four phases or stages of grief (really Bowlby started with three and Parkes added a fourth, but whose counting):
Shock and numbness.
This is the phase where there is a sense the loss is not real and seems impossible to accept. There is physical distress during this phase, which can result in somatic symptoms. If we do not progress through this phase we will struggle to accept and understand our emotions and communicate them. We will emotionally shut-down and not progress through the phases of grief.
Yearning and searching.
In this phase we are acutely aware of the void left in our life from the loss. The future we imagined is no longer a possibility. We search for the comfort we used to have from the person we have lost and we try to fill the void of their absence. We may appear preoccupied with the person. We continue identifying with the person who has died, looking for constant reminders of them and ways to be close to them. If we cannot progress through this phase Bowlby and Parkes feel we will spend our life trying to fill the void of the loss and remain preoccupied with the person we have lost.
Despair and disorganization.
In this stage we have accepted that everything has changed and will not go back to the way it was or the way we imaged. There is a hopelessness and despair that comes with this, as well as anger and questioning. Life feels as though it will never improve or make sense again without the presence of the person who died. We may withdraw from others. Bowlby and Parkes suggest that if we do not progress through this phase we will continue to be consumed by anger, depression, and that our attitude toward life will remain negative and hopeless.
Re-organization and recovery.
In this phase your faith in life starts to be restored. You establish new goals and patterns of day-to-day life. Slowly you start to rebuild and you come to realize that your life can still be positive, even after the loss. Your trust is slowly restored. In this phase your grief does not go away nor is it fully resolved, but for Bowlby the loss recedes and shifts to a hidden section of the brain, where it continues to influence us but is not at the forefront of the mind.
I spend a lot of time thinking about these theories, phases, stages, tasks, whatever and I don’t think any of them are perfect. I tend to pick and choose what works for me, descriptive and prescriptively, and leave the rest. On thing I love about this mode? Stage two - the pain of yearning and searching. If there is anything I relate to it is yearning – the overwhelming want to see someone you have lost again and the experience of trying to make sense of this tremendous void. Worden says we will have to work through the pain; Rando says we will have to react to the separation. But neither of these capture my experience as well as Parkes and Bowlby’s. I remember well seeking ways to be close to someone, seeking objects and reminders, and not being able to imagine a time I would not feel that need. Is the rest of this theory my favorite? Eh, not really. It was a great foundation, but there are a lot of other theories that built on this in ways I appreciate more. But that is okay! Because there is at least one thing in this that really resonates with me, and I certainly appreciate Bowlby and Parkes for their unique attachment perspective that paved the way for so many theories that followed.
One thing I know about grief theories is that they are never all right for all people. For some this theory may ring completely true, for others you may be thinking “thank goodness other theorists came along with their own theories”. But as a griever these theories all normalize in some small way our vast and unique grief experiences.
Missed our other posts in this series? No worries -- you can find them all right here.
Wondering where this info came from and how you can do more research on your own?
Bowlby, J. (1961). Processes of mourning. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 42, 317-339.
Love the Bowlby four stages of grief? Hate the Bowlby four stages of grief? Let us know! Have a grief theory your annoyed we haven’t covered yet? Don’t worry, there are more to come, so subscribe and leave us a comment to let us know what theory you want us to cover.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: