Grief and the Four Tasks of Mourning

Grief is the universal, instinctual and adaptive reaction to loss, and particularly, the loss of a loved one (Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 2012). It is a natural response and can be anything from missing out on a scholarship to the loss of limbs through an accident to loss of a car or other possessions through theft. Surely the most painful loss is that of someone we love through death.

Loss is an emotional wound, and like physical wounds, requires time to heal: not just a few days or weeks, but months rolling into years. The process of grieving, or mourning, allows people to come to terms with their loss. This does not mean that the person who died is forgotten, but that those left behind come to accept that the person is no longer around. Grieving has as many forms as there are people grieving. It is guaranteed to be painful, hard work which sucks up a huge amount of emotional and physical energy. It is also highly individual. Let’s look into what our psyches are trying to help us do as we go through the process of grieving: the tasks of mourning.

The four mourning tasks

Although everyone grieves in their own way, some social scientists studying grief talk about the mourning tasks all must go through en route to a life no longer dominated by grief.

1. Accepting the reality of the loss

The bereaved need to deeply understand that the loss is real. The person won’t be coming back, and there is no point in setting a plate at the table for them when the family makes the dead person’s favourite dish for dinner. It wasn’t the deceased seen at the other end of the mall yesterday, and Mom and Dad don’t need to wait up for them to make sure that they have gotten home safely. An example of someone who has not worked through this stage yet can be seen in the movie, “The Hereafter”. One of the main characters, a young adolescent boy, loses his twin brother in a traffic accident. Simultaneously, the lad is fostered out for some months while his mother goes into rehabilitation. His foster parents cannot understand why he insists on having two twin beds in his bedroom. Funerals, memorial services, and other rituals can help people to work through this stage.

2. Working through the pain of grief

People who have lost someone need time to experience a welter of feelings and emotions. Trying to avoid or suppress feelings may make grieving harder in the long run, but even when people are open to feeling their emotions, not all of them will surface at once. During the funeral proceedings and aftermath, there tend to be many people around helping and supporting the bereaved person or family. Eventually these helpers must go home and resume their normal lives, and the “anaesthesia” of shock wears off. This may be many weeks or even months after the death, but when the feelings do present themselves, they are likely to be intense. If you are working with someone who is going through this stage, you can reassure the survivor that they are not crazy because this is happening, and it is unlikely that they were “uncaring” or “untouched” by the death if a lot of emotion was not present earlier. It’s just the way that mourning goes; the grief needs to be worked through, sometimes sooner and sometimes later.

3. Recovering: learning to live without the person

The husband who never learned to cook while his wife was alive, the sister that always depended on her more assertive, outgoing sibling to negotiate challenging interpersonal issues with others, the workmates that always counted on their now dead colleague’s efficient organising skills: all of these are typical situations in which those left behind must either learn new skills or take on new roles in order to thrive. It is not easy; it is often not pleasant, but being willing to re-engage with or take on new life tasks helps to ensure that survivors remember the deceased person for the most positive of reasons: their personal qualities, rather than some role that they fulfilled for the survivor. Working through this stage also ensures a continued movement towards wholeness in survivors.

4. Reinvesting the emotional energy of grief into life again

This final mourning task is about truly moving on. It is about survivors finding a new place in their emotional life for the person who died so that a future without their physical presence can be engaged (Hawton & Simkin, 2010; Information and Support Pack, 2010). Examples of this stage are the woman who takes up kayaking now that she has dried her tears from the loss of the partner with whom she used to play tennis, the parents who stop insisting that their dead son’s room be left exactly as it was the day he hanged himself, or the daughter who volunteers her newfound time at the Senior Citizens’ Centre now that she has moved on from the grief of losing her elderly mum. Generally, the feelings and activities associated with grieving can be divided into two main types of experience:

  1. Loss: the feelings and emotions generated by the bereavement and need to come to terms with the person’s death
  2. Restoration: what people do to rebuild their lives, such as going back to work, sorting out the dead person’s affairs, getting back into the social arena, and learning whatever new skills they need in order to cope with daily life

People doing their grief work often alternate between the two, and may have periods in the middle where their grieving is on hold. The balance between the focus on practical matters and emotional expression of grief may vary widely between individuals or even within a given individual at different times. There is no right or wrong way to grieve (Hawton & Simkin, 2010); each person’s journey through grief is unique.

Why we all grieve differently

As a counsellor or mental health practitioner, you may be wondering, “So what does the uniqueness of grief mean for how I work with different people?” You may well ask. Like snowflakes, no two grieving paths are exactly the same, and the precise support needed varies accordingly. Let’s look at some of the factors and circumstances which create very different experiences of grief.

Past experience

This category holds a multitude of influences. We can ask, “How has the bereaved person’s childhood impacted on the ability to deal with loss now? That is, what other losses were there: in childhood, in adolescence, in adulthood? Was the person held well in working through the grief of these (for instance, being supported emotionally and encouraged to express grief in a safe environment)? Has the person had the chance to integrate and heal from the losses? What other losses or changes can we identify in the person’s life prior to this current loss: for example, have there been financial or relational issues? Did the person experience trauma from health or workplace challenges? How functional has their family life been in the past? And what has been the mental health history of the bereaved person: have there ever been issues of depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems? Have they been treated with medications for these, or hospitalised? What ways of responding to life were characteristic in the bereaved person’s culture, and in his or her family (for example, did the parents express grief or did they feel the need to have a “stiff upper lip”)? What other conditioning influences from the past might be affecting the bereaved person’s experience now?

Relationship with the dead person

As individual as paths of grief are, so too are the special bonds that tie one person to another. How can any of us measure the unique connection that may exist between a bereaved person and the one for whom they grieve? Length of time of the relationship, type of role (such as parent/child, husband/wife, or friend/friend), degree of closeness, and strength of attachment (including balance of “love-hate” feelings) all enter into the equation of how long and how intensely the bereaved person will need to grieve for the departed one. Beyond that, there are issues of the informal roles that the deceased may have played in the bereaved person’s life. For example, was the one who took his or her life the primary earner in the family? Or perhaps the emotional “pillar” on whom the bereaved person always leaned? Maybe the dead person was the only significant friend, or the only one in a partnership who could drive, or handle difficult teenagers, or…? The possibilities are endless.

The reality is that when people leave our lives, we miss their particular personalities and “take” on life, but we may also greatly feel the loss of the roles that they took up within our relationship, the special tasks that they performed that we now must somehow replace. You can be particularly helpful by tuning into the nature of the relationship between deceased and bereaved, and helping the bereaved person come to terms with the roles that are now missing from his or her life.

Circumstances surrounding the death

How the deceased person’s death occurred and in general the circumstances surrounding the death are central to the bereaved person’s capacity to integrate the loss, coming to a place of acceptance of it. Was the person’s death in keeping with the natural order of things, such as when a leaf flutters to the ground in late autumn because it has finished its life cycle, or was the situation more like a leaf being ripped harshly off the branch in early spring? Death may be sad anytime, but a parent surviving a child feels tragic. We can have greater capacity to support a bereaved person if we also find out what sorts of warnings they may have had that the loss was imminent. Or did death come so suddenly that there was no advance notice, no chance to say goodbye, no opportunity to resolve “unfinished business” interpersonally? Does the bereaved person have a sense that the death could have been prevented or postponed?

Importantly, how much responsibility is the bereaved person taking for the death? Is there a sense that the deceased accomplished their life’s mission and that their life was rewarding and full? If there is anything unresolved between the deceased and the bereaved, how much guilt is being generated in the bereaved person as a result? Circumstances around the death can add an additional burden from complicated emotions such as guilt, resentment, and anger.

Influences in the present

Finally, understanding the bereaved person’s path from grief to restored wholeness depends on knowing what the interplay of factors in their present life is. How stable is the bereaved person’s mental health? How resilient is their personality, how developed their coping skills? Is the person young and hardy enough to bounce back from this death? Is he or she wise and mature enough to accept the loss and grow with the experience? Can life be rebuilt? Is the rebuilding going to be made more challenging because of secondary losses incurred through the death, such as that of the home or income? Did the death break up the family? How is the bereaved person’s health? What opportunities does the person see for themselves now (even though they would never have chosen to have the opportunity if it meant losing the loved one)?

Role expectations make a big difference to a grief response, too. What role expectations has the bereaved person set for themselves (such as, say, trying to be the “strong one” for the rest of the family)? What role expectations may be imposed from family, friends, or the culture in general? Will the bereaved person try to meet these or, feeling unable to meet them, simply withdraw in isolated despair? What factors in the person’s cultural, ethnic, and religious background might offer comfort, holding, and strength? Are there any religious or philosophical beliefs which engender guilt or add burden to the grieving? And how good are the social support networks of the bereaved person? (Tesik, n.d.).

Being aware of the way in which the above factors combine to create the intensity, duration, and tone of the grieving can help you to be sensitive to clients’ needs, guiding them to get just the right help for their needs at each stage of mourning.

© 2014 Mental Health Academy

This article was adapted from Mental Health Academy’s upcoming “Supporting the Suicide-Bereaved” CPD course. To learn more, visit


  • Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. (2012) Suicide bereavement and complicated grief. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. Retrieved on 31 March, 2014, from: hyperlink.
  • Hawton, K., & Simkin, S. (2010). Help is at hand: A resource for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death. National Health Service (UK): copyright: Crown. Retrieved on 28 March, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Information and support pack: for those bereaved by suicide or other sudden death (Queensland). (2010).Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved on 28 March, 2012 from: hyperlink. The ISBN number for this support pack is: 978-1-74241-106-4; the online ISBN number is: 978-1-74211-107-1.