The Dual-Process Model of Grief

6 min read
Pearson Scott Foresman/Wikimedia Commons

Source: Pearson Scott Foresman/Wikimedia Commons

I haven’t posted recently because I haven’t had much to say, or maybe I just haven’t felt like saying anything. I was doing well. Feeling strong, having a pretty good time, distracting myself, socializing and having fun. I tended to my grief quietly in quiet moments but was otherwise outward focused. That felt so good, and I was so grief weary, I just didn’t want to think about it long enough to write a coherent blog post. I even took a break from support groups that have propped me up the past three years. I was too busy living my life.

After a while, though, distracting myself with social engagements started exhausting me. I’m an introvert, and I’ve been stretching myself thin in my efforts to fend off loneliness. Overextended, I grew irritable and frustrated. I yearned for the cozy, predictable companionship of a long-term relationship. The waves of grief started washing over me again. I went from being energized and engaged to tired and existentially lonely. A couple of untimely deaths in my community, including an old friend, tipped me into a dark abyss.

All those feelings of well-being have drained away.

No feeling is forever, I reassure myself. This is what progressing in grief is like. I have been here before and come out of it. This, I am learning, is grief. One step forward and two steps back, then two steps forward and one step back. It’s complicated, and it is by no means a straight line.

The back-and-forth of grief

This is what Stroebe and Schut described as the dual-process model of grief, in which we “oscillate” between “loss oriented” and “restoration oriented” phases as we process our grief. Sometimes we are in a stage of looking backwards and missing all that we have lost, sometimes we are more focused on the now and the future, and on rebuilding our disrupted lives.

In the loss-oriented phases, we grieve and yearn. We look backwards. We might feel resistant to change. We kinda want to feel better, but we also kinda don’t. Our grief feels sacred, and we hold it tenderly.

In the restoration phases, we don’t forget our grief, it remains in the background always, but we open back up to change. We step bravely out into the world, doing new things, perhaps with new people. We welcome distraction from the pain, and we look forward instead of back.

This oscillation between the states is, of course, more pronounced after you have moved past the earliest, messiest stage of sobbing and shaking your fist at the sky. But even then, you take small forays into restoration. The day you decide it’s time you take a shower, resume your exercise routine, or accept a dinner invitation—even those early, modest steps count because, damn, this is hard and anything we do to stay in motion deserves respect.

Both phases are stressful

Stroebe and Schut also note that both the loss and the restoration phases are stressful.

The stress of grief is obvious. It is pain, yearning, arguing with reality, losing sleep. It is weighty enough to pin us to our bed. It stresses relationships and makes the smallest chores feel insurmountable. It grabs you by the throat, sometimes at inconvenient times. I have cried in Costco more than once.

Restoration, while less bleak, is also stressful. This is the process of figuring out what space we fill in the world now. Who are we in public? What does living alone mean? The loss of a life partner affects every aspect of our day-to-day doings. All of a sudden we must make decisions large and small alone, do chores we’d never given a thought to, be as self-reliant as we can manage while learning to ask for help when we can’t manage.

Even the fun part of this growth is stressful. Adjusting socially to being a single person after decades of being in a couple is complicated. Plus, I’m still an introvert, and so while socializing is pleasant and necessary, it also drains me. After a busy stretch I desperately crave a weekend hanging out on the couch with Tom. I’m tired. Sure, I hit the couch myself and rest up as necessary, and that certainly helps, but… you understand. It’s not the same.

And in this restoration phase, when I’m not distracting myself, I’m thinking about what comes next. I will likely follow through on the plans Tom and I were making to move to another state, but that feels a thousand times harder alone. I’m not even sure where I want to go, and leaving my community of 40 years is a lot scarier than it would have been with Tom. Not to mention the sheer physical labor of moving.

This too shall pass

So even as we grow and turn towards the light in our restoration phase, this swinging between grieving and growing is hard. We have few real moments of rest, of neutral. The safe harbor in which we rested is gone and we are tasked with building a new safe place.

It’s exhausting. All of it. This emotional work we’ve been forced into is some of the hardest we’ll ever take on.

So there’s a reason you’re bone tired. Or irritable (guilty). Or overindulging your sweet tooth (also guilty). But with understanding of the monumental job that has been foisted upon on us, can we forgive ourselves for these things? Can we create a safe place within ourselves? Forgive our fuzzy mind, our shifting mood? If the grief hits suddenly and you spend a day in bed, is that anyone’s business? `

It won’t last. At some point you’ll want to get out there again and do stuff, feel okay, stop ruminating. You’ll take a breather from the grief. Do something positive and future oriented. That’s great too. It can feel weird sometimes—are we allowed to have fun when our loved one is gone? Don’t bother feeling guilty. Enjoy it, After all, no feeling lasts forever works both ways. You’ll be crying in your sweats again eventually. Temporarily.

I do find with time that I am oscillating less frequently and dramatically. This morning I caught myself singing in the shower. A Christmas carol, of all things. Oh, right… the holidays are coming. I see oscillations ahead.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours