The Dual Process Model of Grief: Navigating the Spiral

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: January 23, 2014

For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Many people wonder if their experience of grief is normal. C.S. Lewis alludes to this same question in his eloquent prose, and in his book A Grief Observed continues the inquiry–wondering if he is spiraling up or down. While grief is like a roller coaster, and rarely feels “normal,” most of us have the natural capacity to make it to the other side.

Along the journey we will feel a myriad of uncomfortable, intrusive, and most of all unwelcome sensations. The pain we feel as a result of losing someone we love seems unfair, but it is natural, and while the loss itself is permanent, the intensity of pain will subside.

The Dual Process Model of Grief

Most people will experience normal grief as a back-and-forth between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented responses. Coined the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement by Stroebe and Schut (Death Studies, 1999), this natural process helps us find the balance between facing the reality of our loss and learning to reengage with our life after loss. This balancing act explains why many of us feel like we are on an emotional roller coaster, and you may find it helpful to know that this, too, is normal.

Loss-oriented responses include grieving, crying, thinking about your loved one, and that strong desire to curl up under the covers and never come out.

Restoration-oriented responses include learning new skills, such as how to manage the family finances, forming new relationships, and taking on roles your loved one may have left vacant. During restoration-oriented activities, you are able to focus on day-to-day tasks and get at least temporary relief from the emotional drain of your loss.

How does this help? Many of my clients have reported that just knowing that they will oscillate between the two helps them feel less distress. Putting a name to the experience normalizes it. Knowing it is a shared experience makes it seem less frightening and isolating.

What is a normal experience of grief?

So, when you are in a raw state of grief, how do you know what “normal” is? Most of us will experience grief on a physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual level. You may feel distracted, tired, agitated, forgetful, and even be short tempered with innocent bystanders. Stomachaches and frequent sighing is not uncommon. You may find that one moment you are crying, and in the next moment you are laughing over a happy memory. There is a long list of common responses to loss, and generally speaking as long as you have no strong desire to hurt yourself or someone else, your grief is normal.

Approximately 10% of bereaved people will experience Complicated Grief, which can be treated by working with a licensed grief therapist. Complicated grief occurs when the grief reaction is intense, long-term and debilitating. If you feel you fall into this category, find a grief counselor or therapist who can give you one-on-one support. Most people, however, have a normal grief experience. Moving back and forth in the Dual Process of Grief is part of the normal loss reaction, and being mindful of when you are experiencing loss-oriented emotions and engaging in restoration-oriented activities will help you normalize your own grief experience.

Journaling Exercise

Divide a page in your grief journal into two columns. Label the left side “Loss-Oriented Coping,” and the right side “Restoration-Oriented Coping.” Make a list of how you are coping with your loss. Record each response in the appropriate column.

Reflection on The Dual Process Model of Bereavement

What can you learn about yourself from this list? How does your body feel when you are experiencing loss? When you are experiencing restoration?

Give yourself permission to experience both modes of coping. It will help you maintain emotional balance, and work through your loss in a healthy and normal manner. Make sure you give yourself time to express your grief, as well as time-out periods where you simply try to live your life. For most of us we do not need to force this process–it just happens naturally.

Mindfulness awareness, as well as practices such as meditation and yoga, will help your body restore itself to a state of equilibrium. When you experience intense emotion, use your breath as an anchor to the present for stability. Your breath is also useful during restoration-oriented periods, and will help you appreciate the stillness and preciousness of daily life. These two states are neither good nor bad. They simply are what is happening, right here, right now.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Living with Grief and the guided journal, From Grief To Peace. She is the creator of the Mindfulness & Grief System that is featured in the Handbook of Grief Therapies (2023) and is the founder of Awaken, a mindfulness-based online grief support group. Heather also hosts the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and offers mindfulness-based grief support online through her organization, the Mindfulness & Grief Institute. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She currently lives in Falling Waters, WV.

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