- Grief is an instinctive response which helps to facilitate safety and survival.
- Loss can threaten core beliefs formed from early childhood experiences.
- An awareness of attachment theory can support us in becoming less judgmental and more patient with others' expressions of grief.
The relationship between grief and attachment theory is often not fully recognized, despite attachment theory being a well-known theory in the field of psychology.
To begin, grief can be conceptualized as an extension of the attachment system, as grief is a response to a loss event causing separation distress. This grief can be related to death, but also non-death related experiences.1 The significance of a loss experience is determined by our attachment bond to the deceased person, pet, relationship, object, or experience that we’re experiencing deprivation from. Without attachment, there is no grief response.
British psychologist John Bowlby proposed that the attachment system had developed within humans and other social mammals to prevent prolonged separation of a newborn from a primary attachment figure.2 The attachment figure constitutes someone with whom we have created a psychological and social bond. This bonding experience helps facilitate survival and adaptation.
The bond we co-create with our first primary caregivers in childhood carries lifelong impacts. Bowlby suggested that our early childhood experiences offer us a systematic framework for understanding the nature of relationships, who we are as people, and what life is essentially all about. He referred to these perceptions as internal working models, which are mediated by our attachment style. Attachment styles represent our way of relating to others based off the relationship patterns formed in the earliest years of life.
This highlights how our innate attachment system supports us in adapting to the unique environmental conditions we are born into, and our lived experience filters the way in which we engage in the world. Unfortunately, traumatic events or significant losses, regardless of their form, can threaten a person's foundational beliefs. In other words, loss can fragment our internal working models; core assumptions about ourselves, other people, or the world are suddenly shattered in times of devastating loss.3
Additionally, when we approach grief from the lens of attachment, we can begin to analyze how different attachment styles can result in varying grief responses. Attachment styles are frequently categorized in the literature as secure, avoidant, ambivalent/anxious, or disorganized.4 The attachment system offers a framework for understanding why some of us need to pull away in our grief, others may become completely overwhelmed, and still others turn into a puddle of emotions.
Broadly speaking, some people with avoidant attachment styles may try to stay busy in a time of loss, or keep their distance from their own intrapsychic pain. This contrasts with people who have more ambivalent or anxious attachment styles. Such people sometimes feel profoundly helpless around a loss, and may find that their grief preoccupies most of their thoughts or feelings. Individuals with more secure attachments will also experience grief after a loss, but are better able to recall positive experiences associated with it.
Secure attachment styles support people in experiencing a more fluid range of emotional responses to grief, which allows them to better navigate its natural ebb and flow. It's also helpful to identify that the internal attachment system is dynamic and fluid, meaning individuals can express a variety of attachment responses with others in particular settings. Fortunately, since attachment styles are not carved in stone, developing healthier bonds with others throughout the lifespan is fully possible.
Embodying the qualities of a secure attachment in relation to our loss experiences is also advantageous, as we maintain an intangible relationship to the attachment bond or attachment figures we are separated from. Continuing to maintain a relationship to a deceased person, lost love object, or whatever experience we’re being deprived of is integral for relearning how to live in a post-loss world.5 Philosopher Thomas Attig refers to grief as an active process in which we find choice in choiceless life events, and suggests that grief is a way in which we stretch into new meanings while fully honouring what was taken from us.6
However, active grieving often requires us to revisit our life histories and developmental patterns, which translates to bringing greater awareness to the disruption that has occurred in our lives. This means that grief presents us with surprising opportunities to learn more about ourselves. We may enact patterns that we are not even consciously aware of as we try to learn how to cope and live with loss.
Regardless of one's attachment style, it’s essential to recognize how those styles are life patterns that are trying to facilitate safety or survival within us. This reinforces how it is much more helpful us to find our own pathways in times of loss given our unique personal needs around attachment.7 An awareness of attachment theory can support us in becoming less judgmental and more patient with others in their own expressions of grief.
Conclusively, grief can be framed as a process of navigating adjustment surrounding a significant loss or traumatic event, and it is mediated by the attachment system to help us survive. Attachment styles may indicate how we will experience a wide range of emotional responses when grieving, such as sorrow, love, yearning, avoidance, anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, numbness, and despair, in addition to other responses. It is through grief that we learn how to integrate a loss into our lives, and when we are not able to grieve a loss, we often become paralyzed, immobilized, or stuck.
1. Shelvock, M. (2022). Grieving when no one has died. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/navigating-the-serpentine-path/202210/grieving-when-no-one-has-died
2. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Volume 1. attachment (2nd edition). Basic Books.
3. Harris, D. (2020). Non-death loss and grief: Context and clinical implications. Routledge.
4. Poole-Heller, D. (2019). The power of attachment: How to create deep and lasting intimate relationships. Sounds True.
5. Shelvock, M. (2022). Relearning the world through grief. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/navigating-the-serpentine-path/202209/relearning-the-world-through-grief
6. Attig T. (2011). How we grieve: Relearning the world (Rev ed.). Oxford University Press.
7. Shelvock, M. (2022). There is no step-by-step formula for grief. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/navigating-the-serpentine-path/202209/there-is-no-step-step-formula-grief