This is Part 3 of a 6 Part Series on the Tasks of Mourning by J. William Worden. But don’t worry about the word “tasks”, this doesn’t mean YOU have to think about WORKING the tasks. I believe that your psychological immune system is already working them. (Important to note: This is not how Dr. Worden presents them, it’s how I think of them and I how I talk about them to my clients and it helps). Sometimes you will be conscious of doing these tasks, but more often than not, this is what is happening in your unconscious (that is why you are so tired, confused, forgetful and can’t focus). Even though they are numbered tasks, I believe they are all happening at the same time or maybe like popcorn in the popcorn popper of your psyche.
External adjustments are the actual physical things that you have to do now that the death has happened that you didn’t have to do before.
At first you are confronted with the horrifying truth that the death has occurred and if that wasn’t cruel enough, now you have to go and do a lot of shit. If you are the parent, spouse, or adult sibling you will be making a lot of decisions and plans. This includes things like calling the ambulance; going down to the hospital; calling the funeral home; writing the obituary; choosing a casket; discussing with family members how to carry out the wishes of the person who died; burial or cremation arrangements; memorial service or funeral arrangements including and who will do what and speak etc.; delivering the eulogy; getting the will and the estate taken care of and dealing with the insurance company and the bank accounts. This would all be a nightmare if you had boundless energy, but Jesus, you are in THE WORST PAIN OF YOUR LIFE.
Once the initial arrangements aren’t in you face all of the time anymore, you start to come face to face with the fact, you have more shit that needs to get done that you didn’t have to do before. If your spouse died, he or she did stuff for you. You might not notice it so much if the death was from a terminal illness. If the death was sudden, the adjustments are glaring. Let’s say there is a woman married to a doctor and he loves yard work and takes care of all the computers and finances and one day he dies of a heart attack. About three weeks in, as she comes home from the grocery store she notices her unkempt lawn. It dawns on her that for the first time in her life, she has to call someone to do her lawn. She’s got a thousand calls to return and put these groceries away and get dinner ready for the kids and the last thing she wants to do is Google landscapers or call friends for referrals because they will want to talk about how she’s doing and she can’t bear that right now. She bursts into tears thinking about her husband and how it would kill him to know some stranger is touching his beloved lawn.
Let’s say she gets a virus on her computer and then gets a notice that she’s late with a bill. She will fall apart again and again because bumping up against these external adjustments will remind her of her loss, but will also cause her stress because these will force her to solve these problems in new ways. Basically, it will be horrible for a long while. You, like her will feel lonely and exhausted and it will feel like the hits just keep on coming. Because they are.
My goal is for you to reframe these adjustments as what they actually are: GRIEF. And when you have to do them, you are doing GRIEF WORK. On their own, they seem like little things. Call a landscaper, figure out what to do with a computer virus, deal with the late payment. but each one of these things can send you into a wave of grief that is unbearable and by calling it a small or silly thing you are diminishing yourself and dishonoring your relationship. It’s not about the lawn in other words. It’s about the love.
Stop minimizing your grief and name it instead. When she saw her saw her unkempt lawn and burst into tears, she probably thought, “Who cries over having to call a stupid landscaper?” Here’s the answer: A person who cries over a messy lawn three weeks after her husband who loved taking care of the lawn for her will cry because she is GRIEVING. Specifically, the woman is working Worden’s Task III: External Adjustments.
Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. 4th ed. New York: Springer.