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Attachment Theory in Grief

The late British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, came up with the attachment theory to conceptualise the tendency in human beings to create strong affectionate bonds with others, and a way to understand the strong emotional reaction that occurs when those bonds are threatened or broken.


Bowlby’s stated in his studies that the attachments come from a need for security and safety.

It is best illustrated in the young, as they grow, they leave the primary attachment figure for increasingly long periods of time, but they tend to return to the attachment figure for support and safety. When the attachment figure disappears, the response is one of intense anxiety and strong emotional protest.

Is grief a disease?

George Engel (1961) in his essay published in Psychosomatic Medicine wrote that, the loss of a loved one, is psychologically traumatic to the same extent that being severely wounded, or burned.


Characteristics of a normal or acute grief :

  • Bodily distress

  • Preoccupation with the image of the deceased

  • Guilt relating to the deceased or circumstances of death

  • Hostile reactions

  • Inability to function as one had before the loss


Knowing the general categories of grief  :

  1. Feelings - Sadness, anger, blame, guilt, self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, numbness, relief

  2. Physical sensations - Hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the chest, tightness in the throat, oversensitivity to noise, sense of depersonalization, breathlessness, weakness in the muscles, lack of energy, dry mouth

  3. Cognitions - Disbelief, confusion, preoccupation, sense of presence, hallucinations

  4. Behaviors - Sleep disturances, eating disturbance, absentmindedness, social withdrawal, dreams of the deceased, avoiding reminders of the deceased (places/ things), sighing, restless hyperactivity, crying

These are a wide variety of behaviors and experience associated with the loss, and not all these behaviors will be experienced by one person.

What can you do to handle grief?

  1. Accept the reality of loss

  2. Process the pain of grief

  3. Adjusting to a world without the deceased – physical, emotional, spiritual

  4. Find a way to remember the deceased while embarking on the rest of one’s life journey


It is true that depression is very much like mourning. The main differences between grief and depression are these, in grief reaction, there is no loss of self-esteem, commonly found in clinical depression. The depressed have negative evaluations of themselves, the world and the future. Although such negative evaluations can happen in the bereaved, they tend to be impermanent. Do watch over your family members/ friends if the grievance persisted longer than a year, as they may have tendency to slip into clinical depression if grief is not handled well.

(updated : February, 2020)

Disclaimer : The website may contain information relating to various conditions and treatment, gathered and sourced from reputable sources. However, this is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, it is solely intended for informational purposes only. Patients should always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider for thorough medical advice and information about diagnosis and treatment.


JW Worden. 2018. Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner

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