Understanding Grief & Loss – Part 4

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley, where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

In this, our final post in the Grief & Loss series, we consider what might be regarded as “personalised” approaches to the subject.

New Approaches to Grief

In recent times, there has been a significant move away from structured models of grief towards more personalised perspectives, and it is now increasingly acknowledged that that the idea of completely ‘letting go’ of a loss can indeed be unhelpful.  As Attig has pointed out, letting go of a loved one can be partial, in so far as “we still hold the gifts they gave us, the values and meanings we found in their lives. We can still have them as we cherish their memories and treasure their legacies in our practical lives, souls and spirits” (Attig, 2000, xii)1.

The Dual Process Model of Grief

The first of the new approaches to grief was what is termed the ‘Dual Process’ or ‘Oscillation Model’ of grief, developed by Stroebe and Schut (1999)2.

Arguing for a need to identify and cope with specific stressors associated with loss, Stroebe and Schut identify two categories of stressor, which require coping responses in situations of loss:

  • A loss-oriented coping style. This focuses on the loss of the loved one (a grief work approach), a yearning for what is gone, or of crying about the absence. There can be a wide range of associated emotional experiences, from despair and suffering, to pleasurable reminiscing, or even painful longing.
  • A restoration-oriented coping style. This focuses on dealing with problems occasioned by the loss, and on developing new activities in the absence of the loved one – reorganising life on one’s own. Emotional responses involved can range from anxiety and fear of what lies ahead, to pride and relief in new achievements, to the despair of aloneness amid the void of absence.

A central component of the Dual Process model is the idea of ‘Oscillation’ – a back-and-forth dynamic process, wherein the grieving individual will at times be confronted by their loss, while at other times “they will avoid their memories, be distracted, or seek relief by concentration on other things” (Stroebe and Schut, 1999, 215 -16).

In contrast to the classic grief work (cathartic) formulations, which warn against the dangers of denial, these authors postulate that the oscillation process, is necessary for optimal adjustment to loss over time.  This approach requires the grieving individual to occasionally take “time off” from the grieving process, by voluntarily suppressing, or involuntary repressing, thoughts or feelings that may occasionally be too painful to confront. However, arguing for a dual process “dosage” approach to grieving, the authors also posit the need for meaningful engagement with the loss, citing supportive evidence to suggest that “it may be impossible to avoid grieving unremittingly without severe costs to mental and physical well-being” (Stroebe and Schut, 1999, 216).

Finally, at its core the Dual Process approach envisages grieving persons moving between the two processes of loss and restoration as they mourn their loss, with a focus on continuing to nurture symbolic connections with the deceased person as a form of ongoing attachment and as a means of honoring what remains in the memory.

Walter’s Sociological Approach to Grief

Recognising that grieving is both a social and personal process, Tony Walter (1996, 1999) argues that grieving persons often wish to talk about their losses and to construct stories that embed the losses experienced within their lives3. In doing so, grieving individuals strive to engage in conversations with others around the subject of the loss, so as to build a durable personal biography, in which the memory of the loss is integrated into their on-going lives.

Walter argues that grief is a highly personalised experience in which we internalise our loss through our life narrative, as “part of the never-ending and reflexive conversation with self and others through which we try to make sense of our existence” (Mallon, 2008, 13)4.  This approach acknowledges the fact that while our past is deeply woven into our present, that present is in a constant state of flux in which everything is changing and in which there is no ‘normal’ world to return to following the experience of a loss. On the contrary, Walter argues that our relationship with a loss provides legacy opportunities, in which the purpose of grief becomes one of enabling us to enrich our personal biographies by integrating our memories of the loss into our on-going lives.

Neimeyer’s Constructivist Approach

Another recent approach to grief has been put forward by Robert Neimeyer (1998, 1999)5.  Neimeyer argues that grief is not just a private process of dealing with loss in our lives, but rather a social means of meaning making, involving the restoration of coherence to the narrative of our lives. Neimeyer’s approach is a constructivist one, which envisages our lived “assumptive world” as being personally narrated out of our own resources – psychological, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural.

Neimeyer argues that meaning re-construction is the central process in grieving.  He identifies several common features of contemporary approaches to grief and loss:

  • A scepticism about the universality of structured responses to loss, coupled to an appreciation of the complexity of human adaptation
  • A move away from the belief that successful grieving requires “letting go” of the loss, towards a recognition of the value of integrating symbolic bonds to the loss in a healthy way
  • A focus on understanding the implications of loss on the individual’s sense of identity and meaning
  • A recognition of the potential for “post-traumatic growth” in the absence of the loved one
  • A broadening focus of attention beyond individual grievers, towards the impact on wider family and social systems

In summary, the constructivist model argues that there is no single universal pathway of grief, but rather a myriad of ways by which we respond to loss by re-constructing meaning in our lives and by weaving the loss into our altered lives.  The approach posits that each person’s response to loss is as unique as their own personal story, and notes that “The narrative themes that people draw on are as varied as their personal biographies, and as complex as the overlapping cultural belief systems that inform their attempts at meaning making” (Quoted in Mallon, 2008, 11).

Counselling Implications

As identified above, the assumption that most people respond to losses in their lives in ‘typical’ psychological and emotional ways is now seriously questioned. The contemporary view emphasises uniqueness over universality in human response to “similar” loss.

The challenges then for counselling with those experiencing grief and loss are:

  • To acknowledge that the ways individuals attribute significance in their lives will be infinitely varied
  • To enable each individual to assume “authorship over the narratives of their lives” (Neimeyer, 1999, 76)
  • To facilitate clients in an active process of both grieving and of restoration, so as to be able to re-engage with both their personal and social lives (Stroebe and Schut, 1999), and
  • To assist grieving individuals “in identifying the many choices they confront in revising their life narratives and then helping them to sift through their options and make difficult decisions” (Neimeyer, 1999, 68)


In this series of articles, have seen that loss occurs in many forms throughout our lives, and that the way we react to loss as individuals, is determined by many factors, life experience, attachment patterns, the culture and the social structure in which we live.

A part of the work of a counsellor can be to assist a client in viewing the different parts of themselves and assisting the client to integrate these parts.  This also includes integrating any loss experienced by the client.

Theories about loss need to be “held lightly” by the counsellor.  To do this, it may be useful to sit with a new client from a position of ‘not knowing’ and to begin from there.  However, a person is feeling and behaving, is exactly how they need to feel and behave, in order to make the loss a part of their lives.  Therefore, by viewing the person as a whole, and by respecting their individuality, culture and race, a new theory can be formed for each person.

In terms of Grief and Loss, death is the ultimate universal struggle, and as writer, psychoanalyst and sociologist Erich Fromm observed, “There is only one way – taught by the Buddha, by Jesus, by the Stoics, by Master Eckhart – to truly overcome the fear of dying, and that way is by not hanging on to life, not experiencing life as a possession……The fear then is not of dying, but of losing what I have; the fear of losing my body, my ego, my possession, and my identity; the fear of facing the abyss of non-identity, of “beinglost” (Lendrum & Syme, 1992, 69)6.

© Pat Lyons & Margaret Lenihan, 2016



  1. Attig, T. (2000). The heart of grief: Death and the search for lasting love. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Stroebe, M. & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23, 197-224.
  3. Walter, T. (1996). A new model of grief: Bereavement and biography. Mortality, 1, 7-25.  Walter T. (1999). On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief. Open University Press, Buckingham.
  4. Mallon, B. (2008). Dying, Death and Grief: Working with adult bereavement.  London: Sage Publications.
  5. Neimeyer, R. (1998). The lessons of loss: A guide to coping. New York:       McGraw Hill. Neimeyer, R.A. (1999). Narrative strategies in grief             therapy. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 12, 65-85, 65-85.
  6. Lendrum, S. & Syme, G. (2004). Gift of Tears. (2nd). Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.




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