Almost everyone has heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Many people find that these stages accurately reflect their grief process.
Others, though, especially those with a instrumental or "masculine" style of grieving are unable to reconcile their own experiences with the five stages of grief.
As an alternative, J. William Worden proposed the four tasks of grief. Like Kubler-Ross's stages, these tasks do not necessarily need to be approached in a linear fashion. Some people may need to return to the same task several times as they grow older and their feelings and perceptions of events change.
While the Kubler-Ross model ends with acceptance, Worden argues that accepting the reality of the loss--not liking it, but accepting that it has occurred--is the foundation of healing. There are many ways to approach this task. Viewing the body of the person who died is one way to begin. Rituals such as helping to plan the funeral or the memorial service, scattering your loved one's ashes, or tending his or her grave are also ways to start working on the first task.
Task 2: Process your grief and pain.
Different people have different, and often contradictory, ways of processing grief. Some talk, some cry, some throw themselves into work or a favorite hobby. Some people cope with the pain by finding a way to memorialize the person who died by suicide--setting up a scholarship, raising money to help other survivors, or investing time in a cause close to your loved one's heart. There is nothing wrong with processing grief by action as long as you make sure you are using the action to move through your pain, not to hide from it or avoid it.
Task 3: Adjust to the world without your loved one in it.
The third task challenges us to get used to a new and often greatly altered world. Again, different people manage this adjustment in different ways. Perhaps for you it means taking your loved one's phone number off your speed dial or making other plans for Sunday afternoons when you used to meet your loved one for coffee and a movie. Sometimes adjusting to the world without your loved one means having to manage new financial realities, like having to sell your house or return to work. Whatever your loved one's absence means for you, working on Task 3 can help you explore and become accustomed to the peaks and valleys of your new world.
Task 4: Find a way to maintain a connection to the person who died while embarking on your own life.
Worden changed this task from his original model. He used to advise mourners to withdraw emotional energy from the person who died and reinvest it elsewhere. As he spoke to more grievers, however, he became convinced that our connections with our lost loved one do not vanish...but they do change.
In the musical, The Secret Garden, the ghost of a much-loved woman tells her husband to "find some new way to love me now that we're apart." He eventually accepts the legacy of her beautiful garden and his responsibility to their son, thereby releasing her spirit to move on.
You will never stop loving the person who died by suicide, but you will find new ways to love and honor them, and in order to do so, you must move forward in your life. The best connections you can have with anyone--living or dead--are the ones that encourage you to grow and change in time with the rhythms of your own life.
People heal from grief in many different ways. If the five stages of Kubler-Ross leave you scratching your head, perhaps you might benefit from looking for a new model of healing like Worden's tasks of grief. It can't hurt to try.
Debra Stang, LCSW, is a medical social worker and a freelance writer. She has more than 15 years' experience working with people who are bereaved.