Theories of Loss and Grief

The loss of a loved one is a universal experience. Every person will experience loss and traumatic circumstances at some point in their lives. This experience has the potential to displace a person from their anticipated life course.

Several models and theories that have attempted to explain the complex process of loss and grief. In this article, we explore three of these models:

  1. Freud’s Model of Bereavement
  2. Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle
  3. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

1. Freud’s Model of Bereavement

The emphasis in Freud’s ideas on grief is about personal attachment. The theory stresses that grieving individuals are searching for an attachment that has been lost. He describes mourning as detachment from the loved one. Freud defines mourning as a state of melancholia suggesting that when mourning goes wrong, melancholia escalates.

Melancholia is seen as a profound presentation of depression involving a complete loss of pleasure in all or almost everything. The process of mourning is viewed as a task to rebuild one’s inner world by experiencing the intense pain of loss that reawakens the loving affect of the lost loved one. The death of a loved one can result in individuals losing their sense of identity (Freke, 2004). It is suggested that in grieving, the bereaved is letting go of multiple attachments that are involved in the formation of a relationship.

When the loss is accepted, the ego is said to accommodate the loss enabling the bereaved to search for new attachments (Humphrey & Zimpfer, 1998; Susillo, 2005).

2. Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle

The grief cycle model is a useful perspective for understanding our own and other people’s emotional reaction to personal trauma and change, irrespective of the cause. The model was originally developed to explain the experience of those dying from terminal illness. It is now also widely used to explain the process of grief more broadly.

From this model’s perspective, it is important to note that grief is not a linear process. Grief is considered to be fluid and as a result it is believed that most people do not progress through the stages of this model in an orderly manner (Baxter & Diehl, 1998).

Kubler-Ross 5 stages of Grief cycle:

  1. Denial: Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality, etc., relating to the situation concerned. It’s a defence mechanism and perfectly natural. It is easy for people to become stuck at this stage when dealing with traumatic events.
  2. Anger: Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, and/or with others, especially those close to them. Anger can also be expressed towards the deceased.
  3. Bargaining: Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempting to bargain with whatever ‘god’ the person believes in. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.
  4. Depression: This stage is characterized by feelings of sadness and regret, fear, uncertainty, etc. This is an indication that the person has at least begun to accept the reality of the loss.
  5. Acceptance: This stage symbolises emotional detachment and objectivity. The grieving individual is beginning to come to terms with their loss. The bereaved make an effort to move on with life.

Source: (Freeman, 2005)

3. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby argues that attachments develop early in life and offer security and survival for the individual. It is when these affectional attachments are broken or lost, that individuals experience distress and emotional disturbance such as anxiety, crying and anger (Freeman, 2005).

These emotions are often expressed as mourning. Bowlby suggests that there are four general phases of mourning that include: numbing, yearning and searching, disorganization, reorganization.

Numbing is characterised by feelings of disbelief that the death has occurred, providing the grieving person with temporary relief from the pain associated with the loss. This usually lasts for a short period and is typically followed by emotional outbursts.

Yearning and searching involves the realisation of the loss when the numbness begins to fade away. Anger and frustration is common at this phase as the grieving individual is searching for someone to place the blame on.

The disorganization phase involves accepting the reality of the loss along with all the turmoil it brings. Evaluation of self without the deceased often occurs at this phase.

The reorganization phase takes effect once the bereaved comes to a realisation of a new life after the deceased. This phase is characterised by gradual changes as the bereaved attempts to move on with life (Freeman, 2005; Worden, 2005).

Other models and theories of grief include Lindemann’s grief work, Rando’s six “R” Model, the Multidimensional Model and Strobe’s Dual Process Model. Though different in approach, each of these models of the grief process do share commonalities.

They all understand grief to involve a painful emotional adjustment which takes time and cannot be hurried along. This appears to be universally true, although each person’s grief experience will be unique.

Also, rather than being in contradiction to each other each theory helps to present a piece of the larger puzzle in the grief process demonstrating collectively that grief is a complex process that holds both universal characteristics and unique variations.