Understanding The Two-Track Model of Bereavement

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa Williams

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Today we want to fill you in on the Two-Track Model of Bereavement.  Why, you ask?  Because we love talking about grief theory!  Why, you [emphatically] ask again? Because we believe that grief theory isn’t just for grief counselors, therapists, and researchers.  We believe that understanding a little bit about grief theory is really helpful for everyone grieving because it can help you understand a little more about yourself.  That doesn’t mean we think every grief theory is right (we don't) or that every theory will resonate with you (they won't).  We do think most grief theories have something interesting and insightful to offer.  We also know that, whether they resonate with you or not, thinking about these theories often gets people thinking about and reflecting on grief in new and different ways.  And that’s a good thing!

The Story of The Two-Track Model of Bereavement

Once upon a time, long long ago (in the late 1970s/early 1980s) there was a grief researcher named Simon Shimshon Rubin.  Today Rubin is a Professor of Clinical Psychology, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Loss, Bereavement, and Human Resilience, and Chairman of Postgraduate Program in Psychotherapy at the University of Haifa.  But back then he was a mere student, finishing up his PhD, locked in the towers of academia. He spent his days toiling away on his dissertation, researching mothers who had lost children to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Rubin, the young, grief-researching protagonist of this story, read the works of the many great grief theorists who came before him.  Though he found and read many wonderful studies and theories, he felt a bit unsettled.  Something about the research and theories he read felt a bit disjointed to him.  Rubin began to notice that those writing about and researching grief seemed to fall into two categories. One category seemed to be looking exclusively at the bereaved person’s separation from the person who died as the biggest factor in grief (this may ring some bells if you have ever heard of a guy named Sigmund Freud).  For this group, looking at the relationship with, bond to, and separation from the person who died was the key to understanding how someone was ‘managing’ their grief.

Rubin noticed the other researchers and clinicians were having an entirely different conversation about grief.  They were busy focusing on how people functioned in the world after a death.  They looked at very practical functioning: was the grieving person managing at work? Were they maintaining relationships with friends and family? Did they care about other areas of life? This group of researchers thought of grief as a significant life stressor and functioning was the key to measuring how someone was adapting to that stressor.  In his 2013 book, Working With The Bereaved: Multiple Lenses on Loss and Mourning, Rubin describes this saying:

“Researchers and clinicians associated with understanding life change and stress were relatively unconcerned with the significance of the bond to the deceased and its meaning for recovery from loss. Instead, the extent of change and difficulty following loss were assessed in their own right, relatively devoid of context. Measuring the various components of day-to-day functioning following loss was part of the mapping of the response to a particular category of stressful events. Although it was possible to estimate the extent to which the bereaved continued to suffer the after effects of the stress of bereavement in their various life activities, little thought was given to the relational component of the experience (van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996)” (Rubin, Malkinsom, Witzum, 2013)

Rubin understood why this focus on function was getting a lot of attention, but he thought it was overlooking a big, important piece of the puzzle: that relational component the first group had been so focused on.

So Rubin read, and researched, and read, and researched more, being careful to keep both the functioning piece and the relational piece in mind when studying those grieving.  Though this might seem pretty obvious, at the time he was the first to explicitly bring these two lenses together.  He felt confident looking through both of those lenses would give a more comprehensive understanding of grief.  In 1981 he named his approach: The Two-Track Model of Bereavement.

Understanding The Two-Track Model of Bereavement

Rubin explained his theory by giving guidance on how to consider each "track".  In Track I, Rubin said it was important to consider biopsychosocial functioning.  He gave some specific ideas about what to look at and measure to get a sense of how someone is functioning after a loss (you can see some of these ideas in the infographic below).  Track II, he explained, should look at memories, feelings, attachments and bonds to the person who died as an important part of grief.  He explained ways this relationship could have positive or negative impacts on the person grieving (you can see some of those ideas in the infographic below too!). Rubin described each track as a “multidimensional axis” and explained that researchers, clinicians, and people who were grieving themselves could benefit from this approach.

Fast forward to the present.  Rubin’s tracks give framework to examine your own life and grief, considering your Track I 'functioning' and your Track II 'relationship' with the person you have lost.  It can help you to assess areas of your life that are being negatively impacted by your grief, areas where you have grown and adapted, areas you want to seek support.  It can help you become more aware of your relationship with your loved one who died, aware of how it has changed or how it may change, etc.  It may help you to consider whether you want to get some professional support if there are areas on either track that just aren't changing or improving in the way you want.

The image below shows some of the considerations Rubin outlined in each track.  If you want to learn more about The Two-Track Model of Bereavement, as well as the many grief research studies that have been done by Rubin and his colleagues, there is a lot more out there to learn! You can check out this article or their book.

two-track model of bereavement infographic

So . . . what do you think?  Helpful? Not helpful?  Do you love it? Do you hate it? Do you just not care one way or the other?  Whatever you think, let us know by leaving a comment below.

We wrote a book!

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for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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:

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34 Comments on "Understanding The Two-Track Model of Bereavement"

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  1. Phil Helsel  March 3, 2021 at 7:56 am Reply

    Wow, such a nice job here. The work of Rubin, et al. is such an important contribution, touching on traumatic bereavement but crossing over into other areas. I like how it is different from the oscillation between loss and restoration oriented stressors, but I see some similarities. I wonder if one model owes anything to the other. Great work presenting this. I like how Track 1 is almost like a social-work intervention in its simplicity and care.

  2. Anne Marie Ruta Buchanan  May 16, 2020 at 10:28 am Reply

    Loved this article! Just really concretized the relational piece for me that my clients bring up in sessions. Love this website, all of the articles. So grateful for this resource for my clients and myself. Thank you ladies!

  3. Tania  February 27, 2020 at 9:38 pm Reply

    As I Bachelor of Counseling student completing a grief & loss unit I found your article and all its feedback incredibly interesting and helpful.
    Thank you, I too resonate with both two-track model and dual process model as a step in the right direction in comparison to traditional models of stages, tasks and goals.
    My thesis for the assignment I am working on explores both these models.

  4. Jennette  August 25, 2017 at 11:39 am Reply

    The link to the article is broken.
    The two tracks are helpful. I’ve been functioning but struggling with the relationship change after death. Thanks for defining that.

  5. rk  January 30, 2017 at 9:37 pm Reply

    It was definitely helpful. I’d like to think of describing any process as a framework more than a series of steps since for me there’s always some zigging and zagging, and movement that seems to go backwards as well as forwards. It’s hard for me to see myself exactly at one spot, or fully at one spot. More like a buffet; I’m a little bit there, and a little bit over there, with a pinch of that, etc. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Maryanne  January 26, 2017 at 10:26 pm Reply

    I appreciated this article, thank you for sharing it. I unexpectedly lost my father who I was quite close to 6 months ago and while grief work is not linear, it has been my experience that I waffle between the 2 tracks (which until moments ago I was unable to define as “tracks”). As more time passes and I’m able to hold my grief 1% easier each day, I find myself wandering aimlessly around track 2 where thinking about how to maintain a relationship with my dad now that he’s died really challenging. People will often say, “he’s always in your heart, or that he’s beside you” or bereaved friends will ascribe dreams or a certain symbol to their lost one as a way to keep them close which is lovely and comforting in theory but not at all how I feel in actuality – which is to say that he just feels gone. I’m not sure if that feeling points to a type of grief theory, but I suppose I’m wondering if there is anything that I can read to help explore this more. Maybe what I am asking is, how to intellectually process grief: process how someone close to you is no longer a part of your life and how your experience of them now can feel really cognitive with so much more energy expended on your memory of them.

  7. Mary Ann  January 26, 2017 at 11:48 am Reply

    I really appreciate your summary of this model, and I find the two-track way of understanding grief is helpful. But, as a few others have said, the image/graphic is so hard to read! Not only because of the colours (white and yellow), but also the text is fuzzy/blurry. It’s a shame, because it’s a nice graphic. Is there not any way that you can make it easier to read?

  8. Evan  January 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm Reply

    The Two-Track theory made a lot of sense to me. In fact, I found that I had already internalized it (unconsciously) in the way I chose to relate/discuss the loss of my wife (2 months ago) with various friends. For most friends, the “Functional / Behavioral” track suffices: they express their concern, and I talk about my recent level of coping. However there are other friends who I sense have the capacity to simply listen to me openly talk about how I’ve been feeling. With them, I will feel safe to dwell in just how much I miss her. The “Relational” track.
    Tonight, some friends are having me over for dinner and I am pondering which “track” will feel safe. Will I feel safe enough when I am with them to share about my feelings of loss? Would my crying make them uncomfortable and feel like they needed to fill the void? My recent experience is that taking some risk around this has worked out OK.

  9. Vicky Craven-Romain  January 14, 2017 at 7:37 am Reply

    I found the article helpful overall, but white typing on a yellow background was very hard to read.

  10. robin  January 13, 2017 at 4:36 pm Reply

    I am grieving The lost of my son, wish i could understand this article ?

  11. Ruth Field  January 13, 2017 at 12:06 pm Reply

    Like others who have commented, I am both a grief professional and a griever of multiple losses. My most recent experience was 5 years ago when my young adult son was killed in an accident. I love reading about grief theory, even when a given model doesn’t resonate personally. My thought process is always enriched, so thank you for publishing this! I’ve developed a model I call “4 Facets,” including Accepting, Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing. All of these facets are individual, ongoing, and interweave both of Rubin’s tracks. I’m writing a book as we speak and am so encouraged by others who have published before me — you all give me hope and inspiration!!

  12. Jeanette  January 12, 2017 at 11:41 pm Reply

    Sixteen months after losing my husband, I think I have made progress in the functioning part because the day to day “stuff” has to be done. And I truly feel that I have grown and become more confident in my ability to handle life’s ups and downs. On the relationship side, I know that I now am able to talk about him and our life together, but unsure of how to have the relationship continue to grow when he is not here with me.

  13. Bob Deits  January 12, 2017 at 6:04 pm Reply

    I have been immersed in the loss/grief experiences of other people for 38 years, leading grief support groups and after the first edition of my book was published 28 years ago, led numerous seminars and conferences. It seems to me that the two tracks intermingle with the personal impact of the loss and sadness influencing the bereaved person’s social and work functions dramatically in most people.
    I have experienced it on a new level since the death of my wife in February, 2016, after a 12 year battle with Alzheimer’s. She died 3 weeks short of our 64th anniversary. One bit of somewhat weird satisfaction has come from the fact I haven’t had to change my theoretical understanding of grief when it became existential.

  14. Catherine  January 12, 2017 at 5:38 pm Reply

    Grief theories and models drive me crazy, and in my experience both personally, and with many others I connect with in grief groups and forums…. more often than not they result in feelings of confusion, anxiety, resentment and worst of all failure. We can get lost in the idea of grief goals and destinations, a healing, an end point that can be misleading and harmful. Everyone needs support, I just wish it could be the kind of support that just allows us to be held and nurtured in our grief, with full permission to feel what we feel. Our lack of suppport, tribes, elders.. has resulted in this need to compartmentalise, analyse, and pathologise a natural process. I think it makes it all worse… and much harder.

    • Litsa  January 12, 2017 at 10:24 pm Reply

      I am so sorry that has been your experience. It is interesting how differently we all respond in grief, as I personally found grief theory so helpful and have heard that from so many people I have worked with in counseling and groups. That said, I can absolutely understand how you would have those feelings about the old “grief work” models (the ones that have stages and tasks and feel like there are goals). I am curious if you feel the same about some of the more modern models, like the dual process model and continuing bonds theory. I have heard so many grievers say continuing bonds was so validating and confirming, and that the dual process model reinforced that idea of just being. I think many of these modern theories, that don’t have goals or destinations, avoid many of the pitfalls you describe, but that might just be my own bias. The reality of course is that theory is immensely helpful for some people and not at all for others. I am very much an instrumental, rational griever and without theory I felt lost in an abyss, exhausted by others trying to “support me” by pushing me to talk about my feeling and sharing their own stories and experiences. I felt so alone and alienated and in theory I finally found connection and permission to handle my grief in the way that worked for me. Ironically, it was grief theory itself that also made me understand that would have been absolutely perfect for some other people to find the support of being nurtured and held, without ever considering theory, it just wasn’t right for me. Our goal here at WYG is to strike a balance – the rational, the emotive, the creative, and everything in between. That can be easier said than done, but we try!

      • Catherine  January 13, 2017 at 6:03 am

        Thanks for your reply Litsa, it’s given me a lot to think about. When you mention all of the support you received, it reminds me of the absence of support available to me, so I had to rely on theory and models, book after book, online, therapists….maybe the theory will resonate with me more when I have found more of the emotional support I seek out in other ways. Appreciate all you do.

  15. Kathleen  January 12, 2017 at 4:04 pm Reply

    I found this article to be very helpful. As with any article evaluating ones’s “progress in healing” for lack of a better description, depends on the time line of a person’s grief on how helpful it is. If I had read this earlier in my grief I would have thumbed my nose at it as I did everything anyone suggested I read, do, think or feel. At this time I am able to read it, digest it and use it as a way to measure for MYSELF how I am functioning in the world and how I am adjusting to the “change” in relationship with my son . Thank you.

    • Litsa  January 12, 2017 at 10:26 pm Reply

      Ahh, we talk about that ALL the time. There are so many things early in grief that there is just no way I was ever ready to hear. In hindsight there are moments I think, “I wish I would have known/seen/read that sooner” when rationally I know it would have just annoyed or frustrated me! Everything in its own time . . .

  16. Patty Woodruff  January 12, 2017 at 2:29 pm Reply

    This is an I nteresting article. I believe there is one factor missing. Although rare, he doesn’t identify multiple loss. I lost both of my parents a month apart. I’m an only child and I have no children of my own. Therefore, my connection to my parents never evolved from daughter to mother. There are others in my shoes. We are in the minority but, as for me, when you face a double loss you can double these charts because in reality you are dealing with these emotions/issues times two.

    • Patty Woodruff  January 12, 2017 at 2:31 pm Reply

      This is an interesting article. I believe there is one factor missing. Although rare, he doesn’t identify multiple loss. I lost both of my parents a month apart. I’m an only child and I have no children of my own. Therefore, my connection to my parents never evolved from daughter to mother. There are others in my shoes. We are in the minority but, as for me, when you face a double loss you can double these charts because in reality you are dealing with these emotions/issues times two.

  17. Anna  January 12, 2017 at 2:26 pm Reply

    I’m not sure what to do with the information. I’m feeling lost. One foot on each track.

    • Litsa  January 12, 2017 at 10:32 pm Reply

      Hi Anna, sorry this model didn’t resonate and was confusing. I think Rubin would say we all have one foot in each track – that grief is the mingling of both tracks, so it is important to be tuned into both. In terms of what to do with the information, it may be less about doing and more about using the tracks to observe how grief is impacting you in various areas of life.

  18. Sydney  January 12, 2017 at 2:25 pm Reply

    Love it It provides an easily understood framework for both professionals and those who are grieving.

  19. Buffy Peters  January 12, 2017 at 1:40 pm Reply

    I loved this! Being a grief professional, I’ve heard of this model before and I think you wrote this so that anyone can understand the theory in relation to themselves. As always, good job ladies!

  20. Kris  January 12, 2017 at 1:25 pm Reply


    • Litsa  January 12, 2017 at 10:34 pm Reply

      Ah, sorry this one didn’t resonate with you and was confusing! Maybe the next theory we cover will be more helpful. Or, if you’re not a theory person, don’t worry – plenty of new non-theory posts coming soon 🙂

  21. Margie Ohrenberger  January 12, 2017 at 1:25 pm Reply


  22. Fabio  January 12, 2017 at 10:42 am Reply

    From a fellow grief geek, thanks for this. As a counselor, I feel like I get pulled, back and forth, between these two tracks. I kind of call them the narrative and the coping tracks (and I would only make one change and put the worldview part into track two). I am always asking myself first, how is this person coping in the world, and how can I help with that? But I also don’t want to lose sight that if I just focus on that I make grief a very small experience, just about surviving it. Without good open ended questions that draw out the narrative component we might miss the deep and rich territory of meaning that is available to those who have lost someone. The pain cannot be simply meaningless. And that is where the two tracks connect: as Victor Frankl says: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

    It seems to me that the key to grief is “balance” of some sort: in the two track model, the dual process model, between a focus on the past and the future, between memories and dreams, between acknowledging what has been lost and remembering what still remains…

    • Mary Ann  January 26, 2017 at 11:53 am Reply

      Fabio, so nicely put.

  23. Kay C Oxford  January 12, 2017 at 10:17 am Reply

    Helpful, but extremely difficult for my old eyes to read! Perhaps different color choices would help…

    • Litsa  January 12, 2017 at 10:39 pm Reply

      Ah, so sorry Kay! I am going to see if I can make the image any easier to read!

  24. Joy Kelley  January 12, 2017 at 9:58 am Reply

    I found the article helpful. Some of the point’s brought out in the study made me aware of signs/behavior’s I hadn’t connected to being due to grief.

    • Nona Swinnea  January 14, 2017 at 9:04 am Reply

      I just loved reading this … it showed me right where I am in this grieving process. ( wish I was a bit more of both ways , but I’m the First way )

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