The 4 Tasks of Grieving

Angel of griefThe 4 Tasks of grieving  is based on research undertaken by J. William Worden, Ph.D, currently a professor of Psychology at the Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University California. 

Worden, a prolific author on the subject of how grief is experienced by adults and children, publishised 6 books on the subject, co-authoring many more.

His grief model moved away from a fixed stage process proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who believed that individuals had to address one stage of grief before moving on to another in their healing journey.

He theorised that the grieving process was broken down in to four main tasks or ‘flexible phases’ of grieving which could be addressed individually or at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest departure from the ideas of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the notion that stages could be revisited even if they felt ‘completed’.

Having worked with clients experiencing grief, I found that most presented with the stages discussed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, however they never seemed to be in the same order, never followed a linear  path and sometimes some of the stages never seemed be experienced by the client.

Worden’s ideas seem so much more intuitive and in tune with how clients worked with their own grief process and acknowledge that grief ebbs and flows throughout an individual’s life as they assimilate a new reality.

Below is a brief summary of how Worden conceptualised the grief process which he broke down in to 4 Tasks:


Task I: To Accept the Reality of the Loss.

When someone dies, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened, this is somtimes reffered to as denial,part of this first task is to support the client in the realisation both intellectually and emotionally that the person is dead and will not return.
Rituals such as funerals, are helpfull to clients as they signify the reality of the death.

Task II: To Process the Pain of Grief.

Sometimes clients will try to avoid the intense pain of losing a loved one , society offers us lots of opportunity to distact ourselves, Processing the pain of loss and grief can help stop individuals carring the pain in to their future where it may be more difficult to work through.

Being with supportive,people such as friends , relatives of maybe seeing a therapist can valitate a clients feelings helping them address the pain.


Task III: To Adjust to a World Without the Deceased.

Losing a loved one requires clients to makes both external, internal and emotional ajustments
Sometrimes clients find themselves in the position of having to be 'mum and dad' while ajusting to the reality that the deceased is no longer physically with them.

Sometimes clients feel their world and future has fundamentally changed, this can lead to a loss of direction in life, ajusting to the fact that their loved one is no longer physically with them allows clients to move on in to a new future after the death.

Task IV: To Find an Enduring Connection With the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life.

In this task the clients may find themselves considering how to stay emotionally connected with the deceased without it preventing them moving on in their own life. It is not a forgetting of the deceased rather the client finding themselves re-conecting and enjoying their life while remembering the memories, thoughts and feeling of the loved one.

 Worden makes the point that their is no set time for these tasks to be completed allthough it is likely that it would be of over months and years as opposed to days and weeks.

He beleives that while it is essential to address these tasks to help ajust and assimilate to loss, client and indeed ourselves may not experiece loss or its intensity in the same way.

2 thoughts on “The 4 Tasks of Grieving”

  1. Hi Rory

    I found this a thought provoking read.  Whilst many of my clients who have experienced some form of loss have often displayed signs both subtly and more clearly at visiting some if not all the 5 stages of grief in Kubler Ross’s (KR’s) theory, on a personal level I’ve often found the concept somewhat difficult to buy into in isolation as it stands.  Worden’s (W) theoretical approach expands on KR's theory in my view and is more inline with my own experience, although again, not fully.

    I’ve challenged myself on why this might be and tried to recall memories of past experiences and more recent ones where I have felt some form of loss.  So in answer to what are my views on how individuals engage with the grief process, here’s mine from my own direct experiences.

    Looking back I have from a very early age subconsciously categorised my losses into 3 areas (something neither KR or W seem to acknowledge in their theories).  

    Loss of things – be that actual material things e.g. toys;homes; or practical things such as health, youth etc.

    Loss of ideas – e.g. the idea that I would never get married or have children, and neither did I want to.

    Loss of relationships – with people/animals be that through breakdown or death.


    If I take KR’s theory then loss of things took me through the anger and acceptance stage.  Anger driven by disappointment in others e.g. when the cause of loss was down to another person or anger driven by frustration if the loss was my own responsibility.  Both strains of anger would very quickly dissipate, turning into acceptance, usually within 24hours and I would move on. (Anger/Acceptance)

    Loss of ideas only ever led and continue to lead to acceptance and curiosity.  I have had many ideas over the years of how I perceived my life would turn out and at each choice of path and corner it changed … for me that’s the journey of life and I remain open to the experiences it brings so I’ve never really experienced the feeling of loss rather the feeling of anticipation of what’s next or what’s instead.(Curiosity/Acceptance)


    Loss of relationships – In terms of breakdowns in relationships it’s about what I can/can’t control/influence.  I look at the part I have played in the breakdown of the relationship and ask myself if it’s worth trying to rebuild and if so is there anything I can do to support that.  I can’t say that there is anger, there hasn’t been so far, and I don’t think there has been any denial, but then if I were in denial I wouldn’t know would I?  As for bargaining, I guess I could say that asking myself if there is anything I can do to rebuild the relationship is a mild form of bargaining in that I am looking to take responsibility for my part in the breakdown and where possible prevent the relationship from ending. Depression, well no not really there’s been no regret (so far) and no fear – but that might be more about my definition of depression in this context.  Some sadness at what once was and will no longer be but the sadness heals relatively quickly and acceptance follows. (Bargaining,Sadness/Acceptance)

    In terms of death, definitely the most difficult for me to deal with and yet the most simple in terms of process.  Deep and lasting sadness coupled with acceptance. (Sadness/Acceptance)

    So, from my own experience, I would say that KR’s theory is lacking identification of types of grief as for me there is a clear difference in how I experience the types I have categorised.  The theory also gives no acknowledgement to age/experience in the grief cycle, and I wonder if the more a person experiences loss whether the way they deal with it changes, or what affect loss at an early age might have on an individuals process?  For me KR, despite extended fluid approaches to her theory, very much shows a linear process which leads to acceptance for those individuals willing to go there but it doesn’t address the theory of what happens after acceptance.  I appreciate some might argue that a person fluctuates between the different stages before, during and after acceptance, but that is not my experience and I would argue, has an individual revisiting the different stages before, during and after acceptance actually really achieved true acceptance?

    Turning to W’s theory……it would appear he points more specifically to loss caused by death, although for some I think there is room for other types of loss to be integrated into the process.  I like the way he points swiftly to the stage of acceptance and then focuses on what happens after acceptance, although I challenge some of his assumptions e.g. “when someone dies there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened – nevertheless the outcomes of each stage and the move to the next stage have in my own experiences so far proved to be a linear one.  So, my own experience, relating to loss through death specifically fits more comfortably with W’s theory.  Acceptance has been quick/immediate, it’s the processing of that loss that has and is taking time.  Whilst I haven’t avoided the upset (some refer to this as pain) of my loss privately I have chosen to avoid it publicly.  Each time I face it privately it is no less upsetting when I do choose to face it, I just become more familiar with what to expect of it.  Adjusting to a world without a person (or animal/pet) that has deceased has always required me to make emotional adjustments on one level or another.  My most recent loss, that of my dad provides a clear example of this, whereby initially my day to day life experienced little impact and yet my view of the world subtly yet fundamentally changed – but I didn’t experience the loss of direction W refers to, instead a much clearer, changed and driven direction. Finding a way to remain emotionally connected to my dad has perhaps been the most important and difficult part of my grieving process and has in fact helped me to not move on as such, but shape my life in a way that allows me to bring his memory with me and for me that comes with both deep sadness and comfort.

    So, I think both KR and W have valid points in their theory of the grieving process but for me neither tell the story holistically.  For me, it is important as a therapist to recognise that theories are useful, as much as is my own experience in life and what that teaches me … but more importantly, far more importantly it is the experience of my client that is most important in therapy and I should not lose sight of the person sat in the chair opposite me who may be struggling with their process of grief, and I should remain open to them teaching me a new way, a new process, perhaps one that shatters not only my own experience but that of the theorists out there too! 🙂

  2. Julia,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, I guess that theories will always be at some level be an inadequate way describing the nuanced response to loss, which is as individual as those who it touches.

    I agree with you completely that it is up to us at therapists to be ‘taught’ by clients, the many shades of emotion that they experience.

    Listening, hearing and being present with the client are more important than the theories we learn, even if they aid our wider understanding.


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