If You Are Grieving, You Are Working the Tasks of Mourning

On September 7th I appeared on the Blogtalk radio show "Think Zink" with Sarah Zink where we discussed grief work and the Tasks of Mourning as a part of our series called "The Kaleidoscope of Grief." These are some notes from our discussion (with added explanations and examples). I've also embedded a link to the show, which is also available for download from iTunes. The term "grief work" was coined by Freud, so the idea that this grief stuff is hard work has been around for a long time, yet somehow it still doesn't register.  I remind my clients that they are working really hard frequently because we have a tendency to forget the simple notion that grief indeed is work.   In fact, most of the time even though we know that we have experienced a loss in the recent past, we are unlikely to attribute our common symptoms of grief work like numbness, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, depression and fatigue to it's actual source: grief.  We usually blame ourselves for being so lame or stupid or lazy or that we are truly losing our damn minds.

That's why I like to teach my clients the Tasks of Mourning by J. William Worden found in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy.  I think it's important to point out that many grief researchers, teachers and clinicians do not care for the Tasks of Mourning.  They feel that it boxes people in and are afraid that therapists who use the tasks are trying to make people who are grief fit certain molds, like people used to - and sometimes still do with the stages of grief.  An example of that might be if a grieving person says, "I'm having a hard time today" and an inept therapist might say something idiotic like, "oh, you should be working Task I, now give me your money."  I would agree if there are therapists out there misusing the Tasks, then they are horrible and they should stop immediately.  You are giving grief counselors a bad name, so please for the love of God stop!!!!

I see the Tasks, not as something that people need to consciously DO.  I see the Tasks as something that people are ALREADY DOING - unconsciously, like it or not.    I teach the Tasks once, so that my clients can forget about them and not worry about them anymore.  I might remind them when they are having a hard time.  For instance, if a client comes in about three months after I have been working with them and I taught them Tasks to them months ago and she says, "I had a miserable weekend and I hardly got through it."  She tells me that she did her taxes and it was the first time she had to do all of that by herself.  She tells me that she "feels like a complete loser because people do their taxes every year and don't fall apart like this."  I explain to her that she was not falling apart just because of her taxes, but because she was also doing her grief work and that is sounds like she was working all of the Tasks that weekend and doing taxes (which technically could be considered grief work as well to some).  So, notice how she doesn't have to do anything "extra."  Truly, I see the role of Worden's Tasks of Mourning as beautiful offering of compassion to hurting people.

The Tasks of Mourning and the details about the Tasks are just there to provide support to you on your journey.  That's all.  If they are not helpful, then don't use them.  Use something else.  If some things are helpful and others aren't, then take what you need and leave the rest.  If nothing is helpful - perfect -you can cross one more thing off your list that didn't help and now you're off to find something that will!

In the show Sarah and I discussed Task I and Task II Task I:  To Accept the Reality of the Loss                                                                          According to Worden, this Task is achieved when a person comes, "full face with the reality that the person is dead, that the person is gone and will not return.  Part of the acceptance of this reality is coming to believe that reunion is not possible, at least in this life (p. 39)."

Task II:  To Process The Pain of Grief                                                                                   This can include emotional symptoms like sadness, loneliness, helplessness, anxiety, shame, guilt, relief, anger, depression, restlessness or physical symptoms like fatigue, appetite and sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, fatigue and lack of motivation (this is a short list).

Don't be mad at yourself for any of these, no more than you would get mad at yourself for forming a scab when you scrape yourself.  This is what coping looks like.  This is what grieving looks like.  Your psyche/psychological immune system is working hard helping you.  Give yourself a break - you're going through something really hard.

Reference:  Worden, J. W.(2009)  Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner 4th ed., New York:  Springer

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