Like most fields of scientific study, theoretical perspectives on grief have changed widely over the years. Even today, with our more advanced understanding of the brain and the implementation of neuroimaging modalities, we are still far from truly understanding the dynamics of bereavement. That being said, each new theory provides us with new insight into the complex processes at play following a loss. Today, I’d like to break down the history of grief theory.
Our journey into grief history begins in 1917, when Freud published his paper, Mourning and Melancholia. Freud proposed that a bereaved individual must engage in ‘grief work’ to properly heal from a loss. Grief work is the process by which an individual breaks their bond to the deceased, adjusts to their new life, and forms new relationships with others. According to this Freudian theory, the best way to overcome grief is to throw oneself into other aspects of life (Hall, 2022).
The next big development in grief theory happened in the late 1960s when Kübler-Ross theorized that grief occurs in predictable stages. These stages were as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Hamilton, 2016). While this theory is still widely regarded in grief counseling today, many scientists have valid criticisms regarding it. For one, this theory was originally based purely on anecdotal evidence, rather than empirical scientific study. Secondly, most scientists postulate that grief is much more nebulous than clear stage theory (Tyrrell, 2021).
In 1999, Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut came up with the Dual Process Model (DPM) of grief (O’Connor, 2019). This theory suggests that grieving individuals engage with stress involved in loss as well as the stress involved in returning to normalcy. Individuals oscillate between two states: Loss-Orientation (LO) and Restoration-Orientation (RO). While in LO the griever engages in emotion-focussed coping, where different tactics are used to avoid the negative emotions associated with loss. In RO the griever engages in problem-focussed coping, where the griever makes active efforts to confront and overcome stressors (Fiore, 2019; Schoenmakers, 2015).
As expansive as these many grief theories are, these are only the tip of the iceberg. Considering grief can express itself in such variable ways, it should be no shock that there is no shortage of ways to conceptualize it!