Those of you who love love LOVE WYG’s grief theory posts have probably been a little frustrated lately. After scouring the archives I’ve discovered it has been about 4 months since we last covered a grief theory. Whoops. Today we’re getting back on track by moving us into the world of modern grief theory with Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model of Grief.
Before we dive in I’d like to say that I truly believe learning about grief theory can be good for grievers. As a person with rational leanings, understanding my own grief really helped me make sense of what I was going through. Some people get frustrated that grief theory feels abstract and that it isn’t practical for your average griever. Those old-school stage and task based models often annoyed grievers by feeling limiting and inaccurate. But we write about grief theory here on the blog because we know at least a handful of you may feel the same way I do– you actually like reading about grief theory. And more importantly, grief theory has come a long, long way since those stage models. We hope it helps to know a bit more about how mental health approaches grief nowadays.
That being said, I should warn you that the Dual Process Model of Grief makes some people’s head spin on the first read, because it DOESN’T fall into those neat, linear tasks and stages of past grief models past. But that is also what makes it great. It is one of the models that started the revolution in what we know and understand about grief, questioning those linear, stage-based models.
The Dual Process Model may make things seem more complicated on first pass, but that’s because grief is complicated and it captures that. Here’s the reward for sticking with it: this grief theory endorses watching mindless TV sometimes. Yes seriously.
The Dual Process Model of Coping With Bereavement
In 1995 Margaret Stoebe and Henk Schut presented a paper at the Meeting of the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement (OMG guys, can you imagine what their post-meeting happy hours are like?). The paper was called “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement” and outlined their theory. Their theory then gained traction after authors Stoebe and Schut published The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement, Rationale and Description in the journal Death Studies; spurring grief-academics to put the theory to the test and look at its real-life applications when working with grievers. I was in high school when the original paper came out so, like most people, not so much interested in papers about bereavement; but by the time I conducted my mental health and grief studies in the 2000s the Dual Process Model of Grief had, sure enough, made its way into the grief textbooks.
Stroebe and Schut started their 1999 paper with a direct critique of prevailing ‘grief work’ theories, saying…
“…there are shortcomings in traditional theorizing about effective ways of coping with bereavement, most notably, with respect to the so-called ‘grief work hypothesis.’ Criticisms include imprecise definition, failure to represent dynamic processing that is characteristic of grieving, lack of empirical evidence and validation across cultures and historical periods, and a limited focus on intrapersonal processes and on health outcomes.”
Dang…way hash, Tai. There’s no beating around the bush with this crew.
Now you may be asking yourself, “what the heck is ‘grief work’ and why are they so critical of it?” Though (as Stroebe and Schut point out) the definition is imprecise, ‘grief work’ is the general idea that a griever must work through their difficult and painful feelings around the loss. Those who subscribe to the ‘grief work’ theory argue that a griever will not recover from their loss if they do not go through this process, often tasks and stages, to confront their difficult emotions.
It is important to understand these criticisms, as the Dual Process Model is a direct response to some of the limitations and problems they identified in existing grief theory. One strong beef they have is with the way ‘grief-work’ theories deal with avoidance, denial and repression. Under the ‘grief work’ model, you must face the pain of the loss head-on. This is emotionally and physically exhausting, but it is crucial to healthy grieving. The DPM argues that to “avoid, deny, or suppress” certain aspects of grief is not only normal, but a healthy and important part of grieving. Unexpected and refreshing, right?!
Stroebe and Schut also suggest that the ‘grief-work’ theory undervalues the more instrumental experience of grief (sometimes thought of as a more ‘masculine’ way of grieving, though not exclusively so!), and is based on the intuitive grief experience (sometimes considered more feminine) which is more expressive and willing to confront difficult emotion. They suggest the ‘grief work’ definition of ‘healthy’ grief is largely based on a western, medical model and suggest that their own model is more inclusive.
When Stroebe and Schut transition from a review of other theories to introducing their own, they explain a final critique of ‘grief work’ theories, which is failing to specify the stressors of bereavement. In the DPM the authors suggest that there are two types of stressor that are associated with grieving: loss-oriented stressors and restoration-oriented stressors. Both types require coping, but Stroebe and Schut are quick to point out that we also must take important breaks from said coping.
Loss-oriented stressors, as DPM defines them, are stressors that come from focusing on and processing the loss of the person who has died and our relationship with that person. This includes everything from looking at old photos, yearning, remembering, imaging what a loved one would say about something, and reminiscing.
Restoration-oriented, on the other hand, has to do with secondary sources of stress and coping. Instead of just thinking about the grief for the person who died, this theory considers the stress of feelings of isolation, having to fulfill tasks that the person who died used to do (like cooking, cleaning, managing finances, etc). This is, as Stroebe and Schut point out, similar to the concept of coping with secondary losses that arise following a death, though the DPM is slightly more inclusive. It is also the rebuilding that must happen of everyday life after loss.
A crucial part of the Dual Process Model is the concept of oscillation. According to Stroebe and Schut, healthy grieving means engaging in a dynamic process of oscillating between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping. A griever will oscillate between confronting the loss and avoiding the loss. This is a dynamic process that is actually part of the healthy grief process under the DPM, coping with our grief at times and seeking respite at times (this is the part where we are all given permission to watch bad TV!).
If there is only one thing you take from the Dual Process Model of Grief it is this: it’s okay to experience grief in doses. At times you will face your loss head-on, others you’ll focus on fulfilling practical needs and life tasks, and once in a while you will need to take a break or find respite. This is partially why we talk so often about self-care.
If you find all of this clear as mud, perhaps this diagram provided by Stroebe and Schut will help:
Hmmmm . . . . yeah, that diagram didn’t really help me either. So, for now let’s all just toast to a grief theory that supports my love of Netflix (within reason).
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