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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. This article explores seven models and theories that have attempted to explain the complex process of loss and grief. They are outlined below:

Theories of Loss and Grief

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).

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 defense 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.   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.
  4. Acceptance: This stage symbolizes 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)

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 characterized 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 realization 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 realization of a new life after the deceased. This phase is characterized by gradual changes as the bereaved attempts to move on with life (Freeman, 2005; Worden, 2005).

Lindemann’s grief work

Lindemann has suggested that grief is part of the healing process which he termed “grief work”. He identified three tasks that constitute grief work: emancipation from the bondage of the deceased, readjustment to the environment in which the deceased is missing and formation of new relationships.

  1. Emancipation from the bondage of the deceased: Attachments to the deceased must be given up to enable a new status to develop. This does not mean that the deceased is replaced or forgotten. It means that the emotional attachment is modified to allow the bereaved to form other attachments. The focus of the bereaved is to invest in an attachment with a living person who can return the investment.
  2. Readjustment to the environment in which the deceased is living: This involves identifying the roles and identity of the bereaved. Emotional, physical, psychological and social adjustments will be required.
  3. Formation of new relationships involves establishing new and different attachments with a living person (Freeman, 2005).

Rando’s six “R” Model

Rando (1993) proposed a process of mourning. This theory suggests that mourning has six phases namely to recognize, react, recollect, readjust, relinquish and reinvent. This model was specifically developed for grief following the death of a significant other but could be generalized to other types of loss (Humphrey & Zimpfer, 1998).

Rando’s six “R” Model:

  1. Recognize: Recognize the loss. First people must understand the loss and acknowledge that it has happened
  2. React: React to the separation that has occurred. This includes expressing and experiencing a full range of painful emotions
  3. Recollect: Recollect and re-experience the relationship through reviewing and remembering.
  4. Relinquish: People begin to put their loss behind them, realizing and accepting that the world has truly changed and that there is no turning back
  5. Readjust: The process of returning to daily life and the loss starts to feel less acute.
  6. Reinvent: This process involves forming new relationships and commitments. They accept the changes that have occurred, accept them and move on from them.

Adapted from: (Humphrey & Zimpfer, 1998).

The Multidimensional Model

Le Poidevin’s model conceptualizes grief as a process of simultaneous change explained by seven dimensions in terms of emotional, social, physical, lifestyle, practical, spiritual and identity.  By identifying the main areas of each dimension that are affected, individuals and those offering support can gain understanding of the grieving person’s circumstances and their grief reactions. This model can also help the support network understand what resources are available to the bereaved as a way of helping them cope.

The dimensions of loss:

  1. Emotional: characterized by very strong emotions. How comfortable is the individual with their emotional responses? Are they at ease with showing emotions or do they believe in emotional control?
  2. Social: Loss is experienced within a social network resulting in changes in status and role. What has been the impact of other members of the social network? Is quality support available?
  3. Physical: There are numerous physical symptoms related to grief reactions. What has been the impact on physical health?
  4. Lifestyle: Loss may lead to major changes in lifestyle. Changes in lifestyle as a result of loss.
  5. Practical: Loss may affect the ability to cope with everyday practicalities. How is everyday living being managed?
  6. Spiritual: Loss may result in people questioning their beliefs in the world resulting in loss of meaning and purpose. In what ways has the bereavement affected the belief system of an individual
  7. Identity: Loss may affect identity, self-esteem and self-worth. To what extent has the loss affected individual self-concept and self-esteem?

Adapted from: (Payne, Horn & Relf, 1999)

Strobe’s Dual Process Model

This model suggests that avoiding grief may be both helpful and detrimental whereby Bereavement is seen to involve: Loss of Orientation and Restoration Orientation.

Loss orientation involves grief work, including preoccupation with the loss, yearning and ruminating for the deceased whereas restoration orientation encompasses mastering the tasks and the roles fulfilled by the deceased and making lifestyle adjustments, building a new identity without the deceased etc. This enables the individual to change their assumptions about the world in keeping with the new situation that now exists.

The model suggests that bereaved people oscillate between these two orientations as they are both necessary in the grief work process. Although the model provides useful information on loss and grief, it has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on the psychology of grieving omitting the social factors and also in not considering key interpersonal relationships in helping people cope with loss.

Source: Losing a Loved One CE Course

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