Grief Work: the grief theory of Erich Lindemann

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa Williams

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If you have been following along with our series on different grief theories you may be wondering what the rhyme or reason is to when we are tackling each grief theory.  Surprise – there is no rhyme or reason! We are just tackling each one as we feel inspired.  What have we covered so far?

Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief

Rando’s Six R Process of Mourning

Bowlby's Four Stages of Grief

Worden's Four Tasks of Grief

Continuing Bonds Theory of Grief

and, of course, our very own Harry Potter Grief Theory.  Because, let's be honest, what can't be learned from Harry Potter?

Today we are feeling inspired to talk about ‘grief work’.  Chances are, even if you know nothing about grief theory, that somewhere along the way you may have heard someone talk about ‘grief work’, ‘the work of grief’ or something similar.  What you may not have realized is that this term was coined by Erich Lindemann, dating way back in the 1940s.  Lindemann was a psychiatrist who studied grief, doing research working with grieving survivors of the Coconut Grove tragedy.  Many cite his work in trauma as some of the earliest significant research revealing the long term impact of grief and trauma, and he certainly influenced later grief theorists, like Bowlby and Kubler-Ross.

Lindemann was interested in understanding the symptomology of grief.  Through his research he established some common symptoms of grief which included 1) somatic distress 2) preoccupation with images of the deceased 3) guilt 4) hostile reactions and 5) loss of pattern of conduct.  He also noted a sixth, less common reaction, in which traits of the deceased person would appear in the bereaved person.

Most of these are pretty straightforward to understand, but just to make sure we’re clear – somatic distress included things like difficulty breathing, losing your appetite, exhaustion and lack of motivation, etc.  Preoccupation with images of the deceased for Lindemann involved fixating on specific images of the person who died.  These were sometimes difficult images or memories and other times positive memories.  This could also include continuing to see or talk to the deceased person.  Lindemann reports that the patients in his studies often reported guilt, fixating on any instance in which they perceive that they could or should have done something to prevent the death.  Hostile reactions to others were the next symptom he discussed.  Even when people are trying to be thoughtful and supportive, Lindemann observes that grievers often feel irritable and hostile towards others.  ‘Loss of pattern of conduct’ sounds strange, but it is actually something most grievers easily relate to.  This, Lindemann explains, is the experience that even the most basic activities and tasks become a chore.  He explains that grievers are often restless, and yet activities don’t seem meaningful and even everyday activities take effort to complete.  Finally, the sixth reaction Lindemann discusses is the bereaved person taking on traits of the person who died.  He gives examples ranging from walking like the person, adopting their interests or hobbies, or seeing resemblances to the deceased in their own appearance.

What is significant in Lindemann’s work was his evidence that grief has not just psychological impact, but also physical impact.  He suggested that these symptoms can set in immediately, be delayed, be exaggerated, or may be absent.  Important also to Lindemann’s theory is the idea that grief can take either a normal or ‘morbid’ trajectory and, finally, that a mental-health professional can help get an individual back on the trajectory of a normal grief reaction.

lindemann grief 3

Lindemann’s understanding of how people progress through grief and ultimately reduce the symptoms of grief is by doing 'grief work'.  Lindemann explains that grief work will take different times for different people, but ultimately will require the same three tasks.  For Lindemann, grief work involves 1) emancipation from bondage to the deceased 2) readjustment to a new environment in which the deceased is missing and 3) the formation of new relationships.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Eh, er, maybe?

Let’s start with ‘emancipation from bondage to the deceased’.  For the record, had I been Lindemann’s editor I would have started by telling him he needed a new name for this task, pronto.  But I wasn’t, so we are stuck with this terrible verbiage.  The gist is this – we have strong attachments to the person we lost and those connections are linked to our incredible pain and negative reactions.  Lindemann explains that we need to move on (“emancipate from bondage”) in order to proceed with ‘normal’ grief and go on to form new relationships.   Now, to be fair, Lindemann does clarify that this is different than forgetting about the person we lost.   But I have to say I am not the biggest fan of this task.  I am sure I am not the only one who feels that I don’t need to be released or freed from the bond with my loved one.  If you are feeling just a wee bit annoyed by this concept, jump over to our continuing bonds theory post to be reassured that later grief theory has embraced the idea of cherishing bonds with our loved ones.

Next comes ‘readjusting to a new environment in which the deceased is missing’.  This one is quite a bit more straightforward, and one that you see in other grief theories.  After you lose someone the world is completely different, yet utterly the same.  We have to find a way to make sense of a world that our loved one is no longer physically a part of.  Last but not least, according to Lindemann we need to form new relationships.  For Lindemann, letting go of the attachments in the first task is an important part of opening up to new relationships.

It is hard not to agree with Lindemann that after a loss you have to eventually be open to new relationships.  Where things become a little foggier to me is the need to relinquish our attachments to those we have lost in order to open ourselves to new relationship.  I am sure many grievers would agree that, as continuing bonds theory suggests, we can create a new type of relationship with the person who died, while forming new and meaningful relationships. But hey, I have the benefit of an additional 70 years of grief theory and a good dose of personal experience to guide my opinions about grief.  What is meaningful about these theories is that there are always things you can take from every theory to find some understanding and comfort, and there are always some things you can leave behind.

To wrap up this quick look at Lindemann, it is interesting to consider the term ‘grief work’.  Despite the fact that many people have heard the phrase, society generally does not want to give us the time and space we need to engage in ‘grief work’.  Though Lindemann’s three tasks my not be my cuppa tea, what I can absolutely get behind is the idea that grieving is ‘work’ and we need to give it time and attention in order to cope.

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11 Comments on "Grief Work: the grief theory of Erich Lindemann"

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  1. Elaine  January 3, 2022 at 12:13 pm Reply

    I have to admit that when I was looking through this post, the first thing I saw was “Emancipation from bondage to the deceased.” I thought, do I want to read this? But then I realized that you were refuting it. I’ve noticed that lately, probably because it’s a new year, I have seen and heard a lot of messages to “let go” and “move on.” It’s prevalent in out culture, but I’m glad that there are theories, and people, that don’t go along with it.

  2. Rashmi  November 20, 2021 at 1:30 pm Reply

    This is so informative and well explained, thank you. The little comments you’ve added to the discussion, actually made me smile, which ultimately led me to leave a comment.

  3. Deborah f Edwards  December 20, 2018 at 4:23 pm Reply

    I lost my mother in May 2018 and I am an only child. she and I were very close and I just cannot get over her death. I have practically been with her my whole life and everything I see reminds me of her, even my own child. I cry everyday and holidays are especially hard. Please any comments would help….She died in the apartment I now live in. She was truly a server to the public, loved children and I miss her so deeply it is indescribable.

    • Julie  January 14, 2019 at 4:28 pm Reply

      Deborah, on June 1, 2018 I lost my aunt, who was as close and dear to me as my mother. For months, I’ve felt like I’m fighting tears every waking minute, and I’ve cried several times a day, feeling stuck in an agonizing grief that only I seem to understand. Six weeks ago my doctor prescribed an antidepressant, and it has been a literal lifesaver for me. I think my body just needed a break from the exhausting relentlessness of a grief that seemed to be getting more intense each day. I’m still mourning her loss — I think about her all the time and cry every day or two — but my brain has been released from the nightmarish pain it was stuck in for the last several months. Have you considered talking to your doctor about medication to help you through this time?

  4. Beverly  August 16, 2018 at 2:01 pm Reply

    I am very glad I happened on your post on grief work as postulated by Erich Lindemann. I had never seen in print the 6th grief reaction to the loss of a loved one. My brother, who was my best friend, died in a car accident at the age of 35. He was accomplished in many fields and his hobbies were ham radio and amateur astronomy. After his death I went through all the normal stages of grieving and then got my advanced class ham licence and trained as a docent at our local observatory. I also got close to all his friends. I know I did this to feel closer to my brother but now know this too was a normal behavior on my way to letting go of my continuing grief over his death. Since then, I have lost my parents and my husband. The loss has never gone away over any of their deaths, but has diminished in intensity through the years.

  5. yagia gentle  July 28, 2018 at 11:46 pm Reply

    Hi Annette. This is only my opinion for what its worth; I think your reaction to your son’s illness is natural .Of course their would be a plethora of reactions for you , including guilt, angst, social acceptance and more. The cruel fact though is that it is what it is, and everyone is forced to accept that. Huntington’s disease is terrible and I would think that it would be hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t think anyone would have an answer, however eventually this time will pass, and from a different perspective you’ll be able to see that there is a light there, however faint. I hope you have support in your trials.

  6. Annette  June 29, 2018 at 1:33 pm Reply

    I am grieving for the loss of my son who is still alive, has Huntington’s Disease and is very difficult and nothing Incan do helps him.. I brought him inti this world to be inflicted with all this suffering..I recognise that I have always been grieving for him..Recent events have lead to our being more seoarated which is good for him but I miss him and still have to go on dealing with his affairs and solving his frequent problems and crises.
    Suddenly I am very weepy and in emotional pain.

    • Marianne  October 8, 2022 at 9:56 pm Reply

      Hi Annette .. and other grievers. On December
      3rd, 2007, my daughter collapsed with an anuraism and my husband went to hospice due to cancer. I don’t know how I lived… but I’m here! After my husband (of 35 years) died, I concentrated on helping our oldest daughter heal from her damaged brain. She had just graduated from college. Also. We had another daughter 21 years old and a son, 17 … we were heavy in our grief. We did get help. Now, we would like to get additional help by going to “grief speakers,” but not sure how to find them. Any thoughts or suggestions? We are better, and thanks for all this help, but are still needing help.

  7. Constantine kibet arap powon  May 12, 2016 at 5:03 pm Reply

    I think acceptance is the task missing. “If we don’t take a situation as it comes we cannot face it”

  8. Litsa  May 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm Reply

    Ah, I love Judith Butler. She was truly transformative to me when I was in college. That is a great quote.

  9. Jennifer  May 6, 2014 at 2:13 pm Reply

    I think the missing task in this theory is Redefining your Self. As Judith Butler says, “When we lose certain people… I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself.” ( Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004 )


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