“For in grief nothing stays put. One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?” ~ C.S. Lewis.

There are a number of theories on how people grieve. A theory is not a fact, just a well thought through speculation on what something means. These theories address the universality of the grief process. Some of these theories have also been applied to the study on non-human animals such as chimpanzees and birds.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at different points of view on a subject. Ideally this will help you to see what area you might relate to the best.

Here are some theories on how we grieve:

The Phase of Stage Model of Grief

One of the most well known theories on grief and death and dying as a process is that of the psychoanalyst Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Her model is known as the Five Stage Model of Grief. Many of you are likely familiar with her work. She offered stages that included: denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance. At the time her model was introduced she was criticized for having a linear approach to grief. She later explained that she did not see individuals moving through the stages one at a time, rather people moved back and forth through the stages, sometimes many times.

Bowlby (1961) also suggested theories that were stage or phase driven. In his original findings he noted three stages of grief, which were termed protest, despair, and detachment. Later he would add a stage at the beginning termed numbness and disbelief. In the end his four stages were numbness and disbelief, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.

Saunders (1989) later introduced the concept of grief clusters. She viewed individuals grieving responses as occurring in clusters of responses during particular phases. Her clusters included: shock, awareness of the loss, conservation (withdrawal), healing and renewal.

The Evolutionary Theories of Grief-Natural Selection Considerations

J. Bowlby was one of the first researchers who pointed out that grief was a product of natural selection intended to re-create new unions following loss. Bowlby suggests that due to the psychologically devastating reaction to the loss and separation from a loved one, the pain acts as a motivator to secure reunion with another or with others in their family or community. The shear pain acts to propel the person in grief to be around others and to seek out union. Bowlby believed grief was a maladaptive by-product of a separation reaction, which is seen as an adaptive response to loss. For Bowlby, the point of grief is that of seeking re-union and moving on in order to preserve the species.

In 1972 C.M. Parkes was one of the first researchers to suggest that grief is easier if the relationship with the one you grieve is an uncomplicated relationship. He believed grief was a consequence of having personal relationships and of loving others.

Charles Darwin is most known for his research on evolution, species adaptation and natural selection. Darwin had some things to say about grief as well. His primary research was done with non-human animals. However, Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Darwin would lose their daughter Annie when she was only ten. Emma Darwin is said to have kept keepsakes, such as locks of hair, after her daughter was taken from her at Easter during a fever. Emma would never recover, never entering acceptance regarding her daughter’s death. Later, this phenomenon would become known as complicated grief or pathological grieving.

The Medical Model of Grief

In this model grief is viewed similar to an illness or sickness. Here the premise is that grief is something be be “treated” or “managed” rather than allowed its own progression. From this model of grief we have seen many industries emerge including grief counseling, grief support groups, social work presence in hospitals, and so some extent the concept of Hospice.

The medical model of grief will often rely on medical interventions such as medications to assist the sufferer with their grief. It is not unusual for stages theories of grief to be incorporated into the medical model. If a person is not seen moving functionally through he stages of grief then other medical interventions such as medication or even hospitalization might be recommended.

Major hospitals throughout the United States have units devoted to grief.

The Grief Work Model

In this model the main point is that enormous effort is necessary to “make real” the fact of loss itself. If you don’t do your grief work there may be a later price to pay. There is some controversy around this mode. Authors such as Ruth Konigsberg, a journalist, discusses the grief work model in her book, The Truth About Grief. She feels the model approach does not assist people in moving through their loss. Her book is offered as an antidote to the culture of grief she views as an American way.

Other authors, such as psychologist George Bonanno, discuss the research on bereavement, pointing out that some people show resiliency and do not grieve or do grief work. They get back to the business of life. He is clear to point out that this doesn’t mean people don’t have feelings around sadness or that they don’t feel a void with the loss of a loved one, however, they go on because this is what helps them.

In the next blog we will explore a few more models of grief and the symptoms of grief.

Take Care and Be Well!

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo