The Four Tasks of Grieving

An outline of J.W. Worden’s theory of grieving

Last updated: 10 November 2016

Dr J.William Worden suggests that grieving is an active process, in which the bereaved must accomplish four ‘flexible’ tasks as they mourn. A founding member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling, he says these tasks can be undertaken individually, or all at the same time, and do not have to be completed in order.

Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss

After the death of a loved one, most people feel a sense of shock or disbelief. You may think, “This can’t be happening” or “I can’t believe they’re really gone.” When a loss is so life-changing and painful, it’s often a struggle to fully accept deep in your heart that it is real.

Accepting the reality of the loss isn’t just about understanding that your loved one has died, but acknowledging the loss emotionally. It can also mean accepting just how much they meant to you and the impact that their loss will have on your life.

This is partly why funerals can be an important part of grieving, as it can help you accept that the loss is real and they are really gone. You may also choose to view your loved one before the funeral, but this is not helpful for everybody.

Task 2: Process the pain of grief

The second task basically involves dealing with and understanding all the emotions you are going through. Dr Worden acknowledges that this is different for everyone, as everyone’s grief is unique and brings up its own combination of intense emotions.

He suggests that ignoring or avoiding certain feelings can be unhealthy and may cause emotional problems in the long term. The point of this task is to embrace whatever it is you are feeling so that you don’t have to hold on to those emotions.

Task 3: Adjust to an environment in which your loved one is no longer there

As with all of the tasks, Dr Worden points out that this may mean very different things to different people. Adapting to this new environment may be more difficult, for example, if you are having to take on new roles and responsibilities after the death of a loved one.

It isn’t just about the physical environment, such as your home life or work life. It’s also about your new way of seeing the world, of interacting with people, and thinking about yourself. The death of a loved one impacts all aspects of your life, inside and out, and this will all need re-adjustment.

The process of adjusting can take a long time, over many months and years. You may not be able to say definitely when you have ‘completed’ this task, but that’s okay. It’s an ongoing journey.

Task 4: Establish a lasting connection while embarking on a new life

The fourth and final task is about finding ways to remember and honor your loved one while finding a new way of living without them. Dr Worden emphasizes that embarking on a new life doesn’t mean forgetting your loved one, but finding a way to let their memory live on while also letting yourself experience life.

You might find active ways of finding a lasting connection with your loved one, such as keeping pictures of them or celebrating their birthday. Or it might be simply taking time each day to remember them and their impact on your life.

Individual differences

As well as listing the tasks of grieving, Dr Worden also explores certain factors that influence how people cope when someone close to them dies. These include the relationship to the person who died, how they died, other stressful life events happening at the time, and personality differences.

His theory about grief and mourning has been praised for taking into account those factors that can impact how someone copes with grief. It’s now commonly accepted that grief affects everyone differently, and his Four Tasks of Grieving take this into account by being quite flexible.

However, some people find that the list of tasks can put unnecessary pressure on the bereaved to ‘deal’ with their grief. While head-on confrontation with grief may work for some, for others it feels almost impossible. For those who find confronting grief difficult, the dual process model of grief may be more helpful.