The four tasks of grief

In his book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, psychologist J William Worden outlined a model for grieving known as “the four tasks of grief”.

Many people find this model comforting, especially if they are experiencing complicated grief, because it doesn’t put a time limit on grief or prescribe linear stages. 

Instead, Worden observed that there are generally four tasks that people have to accomplish to be able to move through their grief into a full and meaningful life post-loss.

The tasks don’t have to be completed in order and they don’t come with a deadline. You may need to move back and forwards between tasks and you may even need to revisit the tasks on and off in the future, even though you thought they were complete.

Worden believes that this is normal and entirely appropriate whenever someone suffers a loss, be it human or animal.

So, what are the four tasks of grief and how can they help you deal with your pet loss?

Task 1: To accept the reality of your loss

Since your pet died or went missing, you may have been wrestling with a sense of disbelief. How is it possible that they’ve gone?

You may expect your pet to be there to greet you when you come home or listen out for the sounds they made that were part of the everyday soundtrack of your life. People in the Ralph Site Facebook Group often say that they can’t bear the silence of their pet’s absence. 

You see, intellectually we may recognise that our pet has died but it can take our emotions longer to catch up.

Many of the rituals that surround human death are about helping the bereaved to accept the reality of their loss. Milestones like the funeral or ordering a headstone bring the reality centre stage. In many ways, this is missing from how we mourn for a pet, although more and more of us are choosing to memorialise our pets and observe bereavement rituals.

Even so, while events such as euthanasia or collecting your pet’s ashes are rooted in reality, the sense of disbelief can continue.

This task is all about consciously acknowledging that your pet is no longer with you. This might mean talking about them in the past tense, deciding what to do with their belongings or even talking to your vet about your pet’s passing so that you understand more about what happened.

Task 2: To process the pain of your grief

Grief hurts. It’s messy and complicated and involves so much more than just feeling sad. It can include guilt, anger, anxiety and even moments of happiness

In truth, it’s emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual, which is why it feels so all-consuming.

One of the challenges with pet loss grief is that it isn’t always recognised (this is called “disenfranchised grief”). When people say things like, “It was only a dog” or “Can’t you just get another cat?”, it can make us feel unable to freely express our grief.

But no one can move on from grief by repressing it. 

Task 2 of Worden’s grief model is all about allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions as you grieve without censoring them. 

It can be helpful to find someone to talk to. If you don’t feel able to chat to your friends or family, you could look for a pet bereavement counsellor. Many people feel that bereavement counselling provides them with a safe space to express all of their grief reactions.

Task 3: To adjust to a world without the deceased

As you probably know from your own experience, one of the biggest challenges with grief is learning to live in a world that no longer includes your pet. 

Broadly speaking, this adjustment has to take place on three different levels.

You will need to adjust your external life – this can be by changing your routines, enjoying activities that weren’t possible with your pet, taking on new responsibilities, living alone, learning new skills, or even bringing a new pet into your home.

You’ll also need to adjust your internal life. This usually means a shift in how you see your identity without your daily relationship with your pet to define you.

Finally, there is usually a spiritual component to this grief task. The death of a loved one usually prompts us to think about our own mortality, the meaning or purpose of life, or our larger belief systems.

Task 4: To find an enduring connection with your deceased pet while embarking on a new life without them

This is probably the most challenging task to complete in Worden’s model and can take a long time to accomplish. As hard as it is, it’s also vital to moving forward. 

When we lose someone we love, animal or human, our emotions often conspire to keep us trapped in a place of grief. Maybe it’s because our feelings of loss provide the most tangible connection to our loved one or that it feels like a betrayal to stop suffering.

But Worden cautions that if we don’t complete this task, then we can’t fully live.

Life doesn’t stop when someone we love dies. Somehow we have to find a way to keep living and finding meaning and new potential in life. Otherwise, we stay stuck in that moment of loss.

Peace and healing come from being able to give time and space to thinking about your loved one, while you continue to live with purpose and meaning. They also come from allowing your relationship with your pet to evolve through the emotional connection you still share, while also being able to make other emotional connections or enjoy new experiences.

In Worden’s model, our deep, lasting feelings for our lost pet don’t fade. They simply become a part of us. Eventually, we’re able to remember the happy times with our loved one and see the end of their life as just a small part of our lives together. 

We’re able to carry them with us forever without standing still to do it.

It’s YOUR grief

We hope you find this grief model helpful. It is not a template for how to grieve and it recognises that everyone grieves differently. 

If you’re feeling stuck, it can be a helpful and compassionate reminder that grieving is a process that won’t always feel so all-consuming. 

Until that day though, you’re not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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