Tasks of Grieving

The work of William Worden (in Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 1992) conceptualizes the process of grief as a series of “tasks” that need to be accomplished before mourning is completed. His framework provides a somewhat structured paradigm for organizing the work of grief and healing, which often seem like such amorphous and intangible experiences. This model also suggests an outline around which a school’s responses to loss can be organized.

Task One: To Accept the Reality of the Loss

While the initial reaction to the news of a death may be shock and disbelief, these feelings are usually replaced by a dawning recognition of the reality of what has taken place. As difficult as it might be, we are gradually able to acknowledge that the deceased is gone from our lives forever. When there is time to anticipate the loss (e.g., when someone dies from a chronic illness), we may be less likely to get stuck in denial of the reality of the death. Some forms of denial are obvious, like discussing the deceased in present tense or retaining the deceased’s possessions. Other forms can be more subtle, like denial that our relationship with the deceased had any meaning. This latter type is an attempt to mitigate the significance of our loss.

When the death has been by suicide, we may also see a denial of that reality, e.g., many schools report the dilemmas caused by parents who refuse to accept the suicide of their child. They insist the death was accidental even though the circumstances suggest otherwise and place the school in the difficult position of not being able to hold honest discussions with students or faculty.

Task Two: To Work Through the Pain of Grief

For most of us, the normal feelings of grief are sad, uncomfortable ones. From a variety of life experiences, we are all too familiar with the sadness, anger, hurt, emptiness, and loneliness that accompany loss. A sudden, unexpected death can also carry the pain of regret and unfinished business as well as the guilt that perhaps we could have done something to prevent the death from having happened. Homicides bring with them a great deal of fear and concern about the violence and randomness of life in addition to worries about our own safety. Suicide, as we will learn in later chapters, often burdens survivors with an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the death. Guilt and blame, which frequently take the form of scapegoating as we search for an explanation for the suicide, are often mixed with the initial shock that strikes when learning about the death. Ignoring these feelings does not make them disappear; we simply store them up and are often confronted with them some future time. Acknowledging and talking about them, however, gives us the opportunity to understand them and put them in perspective. While some of these feelings may resurface from time to time as we are confronted with reminders of the deceased, they do diminish with time. Our ability to work through the feelings of grief can increase our sense of personal mastery over some of the more difficult circumstances we will be faced with in life.

Task Three: To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing

The rearranging, restructuring and redefining that takes place as we begin to identify and fill the roles formerly occupied by the deceased defines this third task. When the deceased played a marginal role in our lives we may find this easy; when he or she seemed to finish every sentence we began and was so much a part of our everyday lives that we feel like we have lost a part of ourselves, accomplishing this task may be more difficult. We may also find it simpler to take care of the concrete tasks that were part of the deceased’s contribution to our lives than to fill the emotional roles which can often escape our notice until much later in the grieving process. Learning how to balance the checkbook after the death of a spouse, for example, may be a lot easier than finding someone who makes us smile. This readjustment usually takes place over time as we recognize the implications of the loss and come to terms with all of the gaps, both real and symbolic, that the death has created in our lives.

Task Four: To Emotionally Relocate the Deceased and Move On with Life

The resolution of the major work of grieving takes place when the fourth task is completed. In simple language, “emotionally relocating” the deceased means moving from the feelings of loss and longing that accompany our awareness that the deceased is really gone from our lives forever to being able to hold the memory of that person in our hearts. They become a part of our lives in a way that allows us to go on living without them. We tend to be less conscious of the loss, less preoccupied with the deceased. Although there may always be times when sadness catches us off guard and we are reminded of how much this loss has affected us, what has happened is that we have let go of a great deal of the emoti9nal energy we had tied up in the relationship with the deceased and it is now available to be invested elsewhere. Sometimes we invest that energy in other relationships; in other instances we may invest it in something that commemorates the life of the deceased.

As with the other three tasks, completion of this task is also related to the meaning of the deceased in our lives. If we have minimal investment in a relationship, we have little emotion to withdraw, so the process is less complex. If we were extremely invested in the deceased, the loss will have more meaning for us and it will take time to move on. In the school community it is extremely clear that some deaths have more impact than others. The death of students or faculty who were extremely connected and invested in the school consumes more of the school’s emotional energy. It is harder to relegate them to memory, which is what takes place when the withdrawal of emotional energy has been completed.

These tasks outline the work that needs to be done to resolve a loss. Under many circumstances, they can be accomplished rather easily. In fact we all have a great deal of practice in utilizing them to come to terms with the variety of losses that face us merely in the process of living.

How Schools Can Help Students with the Tasks of Grieving:

Task School Response
Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss Acknowledge the loss. Don’t ignore what happened, but make sure it is talked about in a structured, controlled manner. Your taking active control is one way to minimize the situation’s getting out of control.

Stick to the facts! Use written communication whenever possible to minimize speculation, rumors, or gossip about the death. Steer clear of making value judgments, offering explanations or attributing blame. Having data that is as factual as possible assists in helping people acknowledge that the loss has really occurred.

Task 2: To work through the pain of the loss Provide a time and place to grieve. Recognize that the first day after the death is the most chaotic and that the level of visible grief will decrease after the funeral. Provide students and staff with opportunities for individual and group expression of their grief.

Assess the needs of high-risk students and use community resouurces to provide them with assistance. Anticipate the critical times when the intensity of the loss might resurface (anniversaries, holidays, special school events) and reach out to those who might have trouble getting through. Remember that close friends of the deceased may have more difficulty 6-9 months after the death with the long-term implications of the loss and may benefit from support at that time.

Task 3: To adjust to an environment in which deceased is missing Assist people in managing without the deceased. This may be as simple as arranging for substitute teachers or as complicated as helping people recognize and reassign the emotional roles filled by the deceased. Recognize that the empty desk, locker, or parking space left by the deceased student is a concrete reminder to the entire school of the loss. Involve students in problem-solving to address how to handle these reminders in unsensationalized ways that both respect the deceased and recognize the fact that life must go on.
Task 4: To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life Give your school time to come to terms with the loss. Remember the resolution of grief is a focus on the meaning of the life of the deceased, not on his/her death. Use caution in your selection of memorialization activities and avoid expressions that will be continual reminders of the traumatic death. Recognize members of the school community who seem to be stuck in the process and refer them for additional help.

Complicating Grief

Although many deaths present us with grieving in a fairly straightforward and manageable manner, it’s also important to recognize the circumstances of loss that complicate the process of grief. Under these circumstances additional resources might be necessary to facilitate the process of mourning.

  1. SUDDEN. When death occurs suddenly, we have no time to prepare ourselves psychologically for the impending loss. This lack of preparation is what contributes to our feeling out of control. This is one of the reasons that schools respond differently to the deaths of students and faculty that are anticipated, like those from chronic, life-threatening illnesses like cancer, than they do to sudden deaths from accidents, suicides, or homicides.

  2. VIOLENT. Any type of violent, traumatic death (suicide, accident or homicide) confronts us with a sense of horror. We feel shocked that such a terrible thing could have happened and we may worry that we, too, will now be vulnerable to terrible things. Pervasive feelings of helplessness can overwhelm us as we realize there was nothing we could have done to prevent the tragedy, and our feelings of being out of control may be exacerbated. We may react with rage that such violent things can happen in life. If there was a perpetrator of the violence, our rage may be targeted in this direction. People with a sense of “Divine Responsibility” may get angry at God for permitting such a tragedy to occur. At a very basic level, the assumptions we hold about the inherent goodness and meaning of life may be called into question as we struggle to understand what has taken place. Arriving at a resolution can be especially difficult when the victims of violence are children because one of the tacit societal responsibilities all adults share is to protect children from harm. When children die tragically, adults experience a collective sense of failure.

  3. MULTIPLE. When we experience more than one loss at a time, our capacity to grieve shuts down. It is simply more than we can bear emotionally, and until we can separate the losses and deal with them one at a time, we feel numb. This is why schools usually feel such chaos when they have accidents in which more than one is injured or killed.

    The concept of multiple losses does not just apply, however, to deaths that occur at the same time during a single incident. There is a cumulative effect of losses that occur over extended periods of time that can also compromise the grieving process. All loss that happens during the course of a school year easily fits the definition of “multiple”, but it’s probably more accurate to expand the time frame to consider a school’s losses over several years. Students themselves tend to measure the losses their cohort of classmates has suffered and they can easily recount the number of deaths their class has experienced; for example, over three or four years. The accounts of their parents often include the losses that have accumulated over the entire school career of their child. Faculty members usually enumerate the deaths that have taken place in the school community during their tenure. Whatever the source of the accounting, however, it is clear that no death, regardless of the circumstances, goes unnoticed.

  4. UNSPEAKABLE. Losses that are unspeakable are those to which some type of social stigma is attached so that the ability to discuss the death openly is difficult. Deaths from suicide fall into this category as do autoerotic fatalities. Rumor and gossip surface to fill the gaps in open communication and the stigma experienced by the survivors is increased. If the family denies the circumstances of the death, which sometimes happens in suicide, its unspeakable nature is magnified. Discussion and speculation about the death don’t stop; they just continue in secret.

  5. STATUS OF THE VICTIM. The death of anyone before it is expected in the “normal” life cycle is considered premature and presents more difficulties in grief. The death of a child or adolescent from any cause falls into this category, shattering another of those fundamental assumptions that the normal progression in life is from youth to old age to death. Again, we are faced with the capriciousness and unpredictability of life. When someone who is close to our own age dies, we are reminded in a very personal way of our own mortality. Especially for adolescents, who are struggling to develop their own identity, the death of a peer can be extremely disorganizing emotionally. The death of someone whom we admired or view as a role model is usually also more upsetting because the deceased’s life had a great deal of meaning to us and our loss is, therefore, greater.