Mourning – universal response to a loss

The process and stages of mourning

Throughout the majority of cultures, mourning is a universal response to the death of a loved one. However, each of us responds differently to death, even if we come from the same cultural background. During the last few decades, various authors tried to clarify and explain the phenomenon of mourning. At the same time they presented a healthy or normal process of mourning.


Animals can also be a source of support.

Freud’s beginnings

The pioneer of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, saw mourning as a very intimate process. The result of mourning is the emotional distancing from a deceased person or termination of attachment to the person. Modern empirical research did not support Freud’s belief. Freud also changed his view after his experience of death with his own daughter Sophie.

Stage theories

In the sixties, broad support of the general public was given to Kübler-Ross’s stage theory of mourning. The author primarily worked with terminally ill people and she perceived the stages of dying and the stages of mourning as very similar. She appointed them as the five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The author understood these stages as a model for experiencing any significant loss.

Today, we usually describe mourning with three intertwined stages:

1. The initial state of shock, doubt, denial of death: at first the bereaved cannot accept the news that the person close to them died. Often they doubt that the person is really dead and don’t know how to react. The shock is particularly intense if the death was not expected.

2. Acute mourning with physical and emotional discomfort and social isolation: the bereaved wishes to withdraw from other people and isolate themselves. They are in distress and have many physical and emotional problems. They feel pain, sadness, and often loneliness.

3. Returning to a normal life: as time passes the bereaved takes over their normal roles in life and adopts the death of the close person as a part of their life story.

Today we understand that stages can last from a few weeks or months to over a year. In contrast to Freud’s assertions, we also know that some dimensions of attachment to the person remain throughout life.

Modern theories

The dual process model is one of the modern ways of explaining the process of mourning. It is not a theory which deals with the outcome, but rather with the course of the mourning. The model says that there are two processes in mourning.

  • The bereaved is focused on death and is trying to process the loss and face the fact that the deceased is no longer there. Within this process they are likely to experience a lot of painful emotions.
  • The bereaved is trying to re-orientate themselves in the world. They focus on positive events in their life and on everyday tasks that lie ahead of them.

In the process of mourning both aspects intertwine and complement each other. Both are an important aspect of normal mourning. However, women are generally more likely to be more oriented towards the loss, while men are generally more oriented to re-orientation in the world.

Is there something that you should pay more attention to in your mourning?

Mourning is a normal reaction to a death. If after six months of the death of a close one you still feel pain as intense as at the time of death, it is advisable to seek professional help. If the acute mourning period lasts longer than six months, there is a high possibility of complications in mourning. This means that you are having difficulty accepting the death.

If this is the case, you can find help with your doctor. Psychotherapeutic assistance with an emphasis on behavioural-cognitive approaches has proven to be a successful method of helping. For all of you who are facing a traumatic or sudden death or need advice on your mourning process, we are also available.

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