The 4 Tasks of Grief: The Chutes & Ladders Model

If you’ve found your way to this inaugural blog, that means you are making sense of the loss of someone or something important to you.  And for that I am deeply sorry. I wish you didn’t have to learn the secret handshake that got you ushered into this awful fraternity.  But since you’re here, I’d like to warmly welcome you, tuck you into a nice fluffy robe, pour a healing cup of peppermint tea and assure that you are in good (albeit painful) company.

Grief is a funny thing.  And not ha ha funny, but more like platypus funny.  There are odds and ends that don’t seem to fit together, but alas somehow they do.  One minute we can be functioning pretty well and moving through our grief, and the next an emotional landmine goes off and our hearts are eviscerated into itty bitty pieces. It’s hard to make the heads and tails of grief.   No matter if your loss was 30 years ago or 30 days ago, grief stitches together the depths of love and pain into one strange body.

Stages of Grief

By now, nearly every adult has heard about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work on the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and meaning making.  She put into our everyday language what grief looks like, morphs into, and what you can expect.  Her work has done a ton of good for grievers, making sense of and learning how to survive in the unforgiving terrain of grief.  The only problem is, the word stages denote a linear model, like steps dutifully marching us towards acceptance and meaning making, neat, concrete stages that we can master and cross of our list and forecast what comes next, promising an end at the top of the staircase.  The reality of how grief actually works, isn’t like that, it laughs at the rules of order and nature.

What the grief experts and researchers all agree is the idea of a circular model.  Do you remember the preschool board game Chutes and Ladders?  The goal was to climb the steps on the ladders to be the first to reach the finish line.  Sounds easy enough, however we'd get thwarted by the dreaded slide cards.  This made it impossible to have a linear trajectory to the top of the ladders because you never knew when a slide card could put you backwards or even worse, slide you back to the very beginning.   Well, that is what I think of when I think of grief.  We can be cruising right along, moving towards the self-actualized place of reinvesting in our lives and meaning making, only to slide back down to an earlier phase and struggle with the reality of the loss.

There are many wonderful grief models out there, too many to mention here, so I’d like to share my favorite model due to its simplicity, its use of the word tasks that denotes action and offers hope in the process.  J. William Worden created a model called the 4 tasks of grief.

Task 1-To accept the reality of the loss.

Even as I type, I recoil at it.  Each task has its challenges, but this one reminds me of waking up and having that half of a second of suspension of reality, the blissful millisecond of forgetting… only to have the cruelty of reality settle in.   According to Worden, we need to come to terms with the permanency of the loss and that our loved one will not return.  Early into our grief we may see our loved one at the grocery store or hear their laugh and look to find them.  We may start calling their number only to realize halfway through they are gone.  We literally yearn for them; our brains want to pull us away from the reality and our hearts want to move us towards our loved one.  Denying the loss can vary from a slight distortion to a full out delusion.  Rituals like funerals, saying their pronoun in the past tense, are ways to help accomplish this task. 

Task 2-To Experience the pain of grief.

We live in a feeling phobic society.  Intense feelings like grief, shame, guilt, rage, humiliation are avoided, suppressed, minimized, eaten, and drugged into oblivion.  Many people turn to maladaptive coping strategies because the pain is too great: food, sex, alcohol, drugs, travel, Netflix, gambling, over-functioning/working, withdrawing, anything to keep the grief at bay for as long as possible.  Using distractions in the short term is OK, we need to learn how to titrate and pace ourselves, jumping into the eye of the emotional hurricane isn’t the goal, it’s more like how can I get my raincoat, galoshes, umbrella and shelter ready so I can protect myself in the storm?  Grief can be surprisingly patient, if we bury our grief because it’s too painful, it will take root and grow in the most inhospitable environments, like pesky weeds through cracks on a sidewalk. 

Grievers are stuck in a paradox, the grief literature says if you don’t feel it you won’t heal it, but many well meaning family and friends and our society overtly and covertly give messages that you are grieving wrong, “your feelings are too much, they aren’t enough, let it out, move on with your life, your loved one wouldn’t want you to mourn like this, you’re still young, etc.”  Such mixed messages can feel disorienting and confusing.  Nothing gives you a crash course in experiencing feelings then after the loss of a loved one.  And your family and friends are thrust into this course too, and many of them did not study for it and have no idea how to respond. 

Be gentle with yourself in this task.  You will need a lot of support, gobs of sleep, good nutrition, water, movement.  Surround yourself with people who can either tolerate your feelings or even better can understand them, via joining a support community, or find a grief specialist.

Task 3-Adjusting to a world without your loved one.

External adjustments-what was lost? What roles did your loved one play (partner, primary care giver, house manager, accountant, companion, partner in crime, my ride or die dear friend, comforter)?  We often don’t have a conscious idea of the many roles our loved one played until they are gone. 

Internal adjustments-who am I now without this person?  How does my self esteem and identity change?  Am I still married if my spouse died?

Spiritual Adjustments-existential dilemmas, questions and comforts.  The ways in which we have set up our entire lives may be challenged.  When a young person dies suddenly in a senseless way, it can challenge our religious beliefs, “how could God let this happen?”  It can feel like a double whammy to have to grieve our loved one, in addition to re-work our internal model of our spiritual beliefs.

Task 4-Reinvest in a life without loved one.

How do we remember and honor the loved one while still moving towards a future without them?  The goal is to make meaning of the loss and get to a place where we can say there are others to be loved in my lifetime and it doesn’t take away love from whom I lost.  The goal is not giving up the relationship, but to help find an appropriate place for their loved one, in their emotional world, but also leaves room for others. 

The above thinking is the perfect example of both/and thinking.  Our brains really love certainty, black/white thinking, 1 + 1=2.  It provides assurance, consistency, simplicity and comfort.  When in the midst of grief, nothing is certain anymore, and the choice before you is to either accept the reality of the loss and go through the tasks, or avoid the reality, feelings or the reinvestment in our lives.  As painful as it is to not accept the reality of the loss, there is something concrete about it, which at some level is satisfying.  It’s a protest to the separation.

Taking a both/and approach is a murky, complicated, grey, flexible stance, which I can’t say is entirely satisfying, but I think is the healthiest way to hold two opposing views at the exact same time:

“I can both be crestfallen and cling to the representation that my beloved symbolizes to me AND tuck him/her away into a sacred part of my heart and soul and create new relationships, a new identity and reinvest into my future self.”  Both/and thinking takes some practice because at first it feels unnatural and untrue.  But I have found it the most honest way to move through grief because it honors both opposing truths.

Chutes & Ladders

Now that we’ve gone through the tasks, again it’s important to remember these aren’t stages or steps that we move through and complete in a linear fashion.  We do need to master one before going to the next, but we take a circuitous route through them, cycling in and out many times throughout our lifespan.

For example, it is possible to work through task 1- accept the reality of the loss and stay in task 2 for a looooooong time.  Overwhelmed with the flooding of emotions, or the psychic energy it takes to avoid them.  When we are flooded or in avoidance mode, it’s difficult to move onto the next task, reinvesting in our future.  Creating a new identity and adapting seems incredibly painful, especially when we feel connected to our loved ones through our intense grief.  When grief starts to naturally recede (with both time and effort) it’s not uncommon for us to feel panicked at this task, “what if this means I’m starting to forget my loved one?  If I start feeling better that means I don’t love them as much.” Which can catapult us back to task 2 to “prove” to ourselves and to others we are grief carrying card members.

Another example if you’ve successfully moved through the tasks, have reinvested into your future, have a new identity, have a continued relationship with your loved one and a life event puts you back to an earlier task.  It’s not uncommon for a child to re-grieve a parent at different life stages (graduation, wedding, having a baby).  Revisiting task 2 and allowing a new layer of grief is a normal and healthy process.  Feelings are a bit like a hungry, overly tired toddler, they demand (and deserve) to be heard and attended to.  And if you don’t pay attention to the early cues, you’ll get the full impact of its grief tantrum.

No one can predict their grief route, how long we’ll stay in each task or what will bring us back to an earlier one.  We can know with certainty that it will happen, so we want to be gentle travelers, adopting a neutral, nonjudgmental stance.  Noticing moment by moment what’s the story we are telling ourselves, what are we feeling, where is it residing in our bodies, how can we be kind and compassionate towards are self when we slide into a former task?  What does self-care look like?  How do we radically accept the flow of grief and practice body surfing these tidal waves versus tiring ourselves out from fighting it.   The next blog will be exactly these themes of how we take care of ourselves during our grief recovery, look for the Grief First Aid Kit to learn ways to stay protected and supported throughout your grief journey.

Here’s some good news, and where the hope comes into play.  We never really lose our loved one.  We have to do the grueling work of accepting the reality, feeling all the feels, adjusting to a new role and reinvesting in our lives, but we get to keep them with us.  Death ends the life of a physical body, we get to continue to cultivate our relationship with our loved one.  Every time we say their name, we are keeping their memory alive.  Every time we do a holiday ritual that has meaning for them you are honoring them.  Every birthday, anniversary or special event you light a candle, the relationship continues.  No one can take that away from you.  Linger in the both/and of holding on and letting go.  It’s almost like our breath, with each inhale invite your loved one in, deep in the belly of your soul, let your breath and your love for them reach every cell.  On the exhale let them go, let your exhale rinse out the reality of your loss, the depth of your pain, let out anything that no longer serves you.  Then bring them back in with the next inhale, practice inviting in and letting go.  Hold on to these opposing views, honor the reality and wisdom of the both/and.

Again, welcome to this fellowship.  I can’t take away your loss, but I can help name some of the pain (what we can mention we can manage), I can validate your experience and I can help support you along the way. The griever in me recognizes, honors and sees the griever in you. 


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