Absent Grief: Why Am I Not Grieving Like I Expected To?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


Never have I ever heard a bereaved person exclaim, “Grief is just as expected it to be!”

Grief is full of surprises, and usually not the enjoyable kind. We talk a lot about how unexpectedly overwhelming the grief experience can be. You think it will be one thing and then it turns out to be many many more things. 

On the other end of the spectrum, many people are surprised by a grief response that feels far less intense than anticipated. Though this is relatively common, it’s seldom recognized, so when people experience it, they often wonder, “What’s wrong with me?!? Why am I not grieving?”

Is this ‘absent grief’?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines ‘absent grief’ as:

“A form of complicated grief in which a person shows no, or only a few, signs of distress about the death of a loved one. This pattern of grief is thought to be an impaired response resulting from denial or avoidance of the emotional realities of the loss.”

Many descriptions and definitions for absent grief place it under the heading of “complex” or “complicated.” So obviously, there are instances where absent grief indicates difficulties in coping that go beyond the norms. However, we don’t want to pathologize the experience of (semi)absent grief on a whole and, actually, we’re not going to talk about psychological disorders or complicated grief reactions today. If you want to read more about these topics, try these two articles:

Ultimately, there are many reasons why a person might feel they aren’t grieving as much as they expected. Only some are related to things like avoidance, denial, and complicated grief.  In this article, we’re going to discuss a few of the more common ones.


Why am I not grieving like I expected to?

Your Idea of Grief is Based on Assumptions vs. Reality:

A person’s idea of what grief looks and feels like begins to form early on. Even before experiencing personal loss, things like cultural attitudes, spiritual beliefs, family history, and family norms start to shape grief expectations. In our society, one of the most significant influences is what one sees depicted on television and in the movies.

I’m sure we could come up with a handful of realistic and understated grief performances. However, much of what you see and, most importantly,  remember, are highly dramatized performances. All this helps us to create a picture of what we think grief “should” look like.

Another way assumptions are shaped is something called “affective forecasting“.  Affective forecasting is when we imagine potential future events and predict how we think we would feel and behave if these things were to happen.

Affective forecasting is something we all do pretty regularly but, as luck would have it, we’re not very good at it. Though we are reasonably accurate in anticipating whether events will generate positive or negative emotion, we’re often way off in predicting the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions.

All this to say, grief often feels far different than your expectations. However, just because it doesn’t feel how you thought it would be, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. 

Grief Meme - Expectation vs Reality


You Experienced Anticipatory Grief:

Anticipatory grief is grief that occurs before a loss. Anytime circumstances lead loved ones to think that death is a real possibility, they may start to grieve aspects of the loss. As one might expect, this is common in instances of a terminal illness. Some other examples include having a loved one who:

  • is elderly
  • has a severe substance use disorder
  • has a history of suicidal behavior

Anticipatory grief doesn’t mean that a person will grieve any less. It just may mean that they can process aspects of the loss more slowly and overtime.

Anticipatory grief may also cause a person to experience thoughts and emotions that feel contradictory to grief, but which really are very common to grief-experience. For example, the person may feel relief that suffering has ended. Or they may feel ready for the distraction and normalcy of work or school more quickly than expected.

 

The Loss Still Hasn’t Sunk In:

Perhaps after your loved one’s death, you braced yourself for a tsunami of emotion but found that it never came. It’s common to believe that grief will be something big, bold, and instantaneous. However, many times people find that it takes a while for their hearts and mind to catch up to what they initially know only intellectually.

Shock:

At first, the reality of your loved one’s death may not feel real to you. On some semi-conscious level, you think maybe this is a dream I will wake up from. These thoughts and feelings are normal. So normal, that most major grief theorists have made room for it in their grief models. As we wrote in our article, The Role of the Acute Stress Response in Grief:

“Kubler-Ross spoke of denial; Worden discussed accepting the reality of the loss; Rando talked about acknowledging the loss, and Bowlby and Parks focused on coping with shock and numbness.”

Although experiences vary, it’s helpful for people to acknowledge that an acute stress response (i.e.) may be a part of their grief process. Or perhaps more appropriately, the thing that happens before their grief sets in.

Your Loved One’s Physical Absence Isn’t Real to You Yet:

Many grieving people have shared with us that their loss didn’t feel real until they found themselves confronted with a particular person, place, or thing. For example, a gentleman who had been away at the time of his mother’s death told us, “I went home and expected to find her where I always did, in the kitchen. When I found the place empty, that’s when it really hit me that she was gone.”

You’re Focused on Secondary Losses and Stressors: 

In the days and weeks following a loved one’s death, there’s often so much to do. Someone has to plan the services, make sure the children are taken care of, learn to do the jobs your loved one used to do, etc. It’s common for people to feel as though they can’t stop to grieve their loved one’s death until all their basic needs, plus the needs of friends and family, have been met.  

 

You are experiencing avoidance

As stated in the definition of absent grief shared above, it’s often the result of chronic avoidance and denial. We described avoidance in the article, Understanding Avoidance in Grief:

“When we talk about avoidance in regards to grief, we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations.  These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc.”  

Some avoidance during grief is normal, but problems arise when avoidance becomes a person’s go-to coping skill. Some examples of chronic avoidance that might contribute to an absent grief response include:

  • Refusing to talk about the loss or acknowledge your grief to even to yourself
  • Saying “I’m fine” and refusing to acknowledge the impact of the loss
  • Trying to avoid all reminders and memories of the person (i.e. grief triggers)
  • Focusing all your time and energy on taking care of others and never acknowledging your own needs
  • Using substances to numb and forget

You Didn’t Have a Close Relationship with the Person who Died:

You may feel like you should have a more significant grief response because you’re related to the person who died or because you were close with them once, and when you don’t, you feel bad. If we’re being honest, though, sometimes blood relatives are connected only by title, and sometimes people who were once close fall out of touch, lose contact, and drift apart. 

If this describes your experience, don’t feel bad. Just know that your grief for this person may look and feel different than you expected, and that’s okay. 

Also, know that in these instances, you may simply grieve different things. For example, you might mourn the loss of hope for reconciliation of the hope of getting to know the person better someday.


WYG has an upcoming post about connecting with your grief when you feel disconnected. Stay tuned by subscribing!

 

Let’s be grief friends.

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36 Comments on "Absent Grief: Why Am I Not Grieving Like I Expected To?"

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  1. Donna  March 12, 2020 at 6:40 pm Reply

    Hi – how strange it was to read your story, so young and faced with loss. When I was 12 my sister of 16 was killed in an auto accident, and I related to a child can bumble through it. In my own way, I did – believing that person in the coffin was a plastic model of her as I was shoved into the casket by my aunt saying you will never see her again, to it being Easter and the priest saying we must rejoice, “REJOICE” – I did not get it – especially in the months that followed, as my mother went into depression, and often said she wished I was dead over my sister, my father who would avoid home and come home drunk, as he was burying his pain, a family that needed taking care of and roles I assumed as caretaker for the siblings – and my deep deep anger at God – how could I rejoice. My sister and I smoked, and the last thing she did on her way out was give me (yes at 12) a 1/2 pack of menthol cigarettes. I honestly have to say I hated smoking, but smoked heavy. One day at the age of 40, I looked at the pack of cigarettes, and said to myself, this is why I smoke, they are the only connection I have to my sister. Upon leaving the nest at 16, finished high school, and as my mother drove me around to get jobs in banks, etc., I was saying don’t hire me, as I was planning to get away, and I successfully did. In doing this, little did I know at the time, but I had become the sole servant of the house, and in doing so – my mother was so angry, but she was always angry with me, from the time I was born, she told me I should have aborted you, I don’t know what her grief was, but she did not love me at all, and this I knew. But I didn’t know that then because I left all would be turned against me, I would be the scapegoat, the black sheep all of my life, except for my father, who just didn’t know how to deal with this situation. Years followed where it was come here, come, all will be okay, only for me to end up leaving having been psychically beaten or stripped down verbally beaten. My father was then killed in 1983 – I was 33 years old, and he was the only person I truly connected to. Much history in this. Regardless he is gone – my life is busy of course I am in a very abusive relationship, which resulted in two children, and a horrific divorce – and finally when I was on my own, finally that thought of the cigarettes came to my mind, and I started to think of all the nights I cried about my sister, about my grandmother, about my father – and then spent years trying to unravel where I was at. I had to identify with the fact, I had several very close deaths, and had no idea there was a process to grieving, and letting go in a loving way. Wow today I am 70 years old, and can say it is only in the last ten years, I have finally let go. I no longer buy things that remind me of, as I was never given anything to keep as a thought of, so I would see something that was what they had, and buy it – now I can let it all go. It is peaceful, and I wonder why I had to go through a lifetime of grief, which has way more complications to it than what I can possibly write here – to finally learn to let go. Letting go is letting go of the physical aspect they are not physically present in your life, but they are ever present in your memory, in the decisions you make, and you will always love them as deeply today as the day they passed. Impending is my eventual loss of life, and moving into the mystery of the life after, and now I more understand why the journey had to be so long, tho’ I suffered ever so deeply, I learned so very much, about love, and about loving myself as well. Today if I had a choice to be part of the perfect family, I would say no, and I would re-travel the very dysfunctional, narc nest, that I was born into, with the exception of those few people who were not sick, but caught by the evilness of it and died in it. I believe I brought them joy, I believe we created a bond, and I believe we will one day all hang ou again. So my journey into the next life of mystery will take with it a lot of knowledge and allow me to to be as I was on earth, loving, but not confused, naive, but rich with knowledge in dealing with diversity and difficulty. I would never believe there would be a day I would be grateful and thankful for the bullies, the narcissistic people that were in my life, but through them I learned so much, as I would not be them, I wanted to be me, and they made me learn to be me, learn to understand and mostly to learn how to love myself, and be able to forgive them for what they did, but not allow them in my life any longer. I also think what I am trying to say, is we can write about grief, but grief has it’s own timeline and indeed it could almost be a lifetime to truly understand it.

  2. Anonymous  March 7, 2020 at 1:47 pm Reply

    I don’t miss my dad as much as I “should”. He was a very kind person. We got along fairly well.

    But I don’t like how he made such a big deal about racial pride. I wish I was of Anglo-Irish heritage, instead of being a W.O.C. So when dad fussed over his heritage, I got aggravated at him. We fought about that. He didn’t understand my aversion to the subject.

    So over the years I don’t miss him all that much anymore. I miss my “honorary relatives” (friends that were like family to me) more than I miss anyone else that has passed. Especially Mrs. I (a grandmotherly neighbor I had who WAS of Anglo-Irish heritage, 3rd generation, I think), & Mr. JT (who was 2nd generation Irish). It bothers me that people think I grieve “too much” over Mrs. I & Mr. JT. But I wanted to be of either English or Irish heritage, so when I lose a friend that was in that category, it’s a doggone big deal.

    So that’s why, for the last decade or so, I don’t miss my dad so much anymore. Blood doesn’t have to be thicker than water. I often say to my dad: “Sorry, Dad. You were exceptionally good & kind to me, but I just miss Mrs. I & Mr. JT (& even though I never met him, Sir Stephen Cleobury too) so much more…because of the ancestry/heritage factor.”

    FYI: Even my newest email address pays tribute to Sir Stephen Cleobury!

  3. Lynne  March 3, 2020 at 10:26 pm Reply

    My husband had his first signs of dementia about 10 years ago. It progressed slowly for a while, but as it progressed, I could see that I was losing little pieces of him. He was an engineer and when I realized that he had lost his computational skills and couldn’t solve engineering problems anymore, or even balance a checkbook, I was nearly in tears. That was such a large part of him. He could answer people’s questions off the top of his head, but not anymore. He lost a lot of his long term memory and some of his short term memory. Then he began to get weaker and weaker. Our doctor finally put him in hospice home care. He died three weeks later. I was his primary care giver at home so it was somewhat of a relief to lose that burden. However, I was willing to take it on as long as was needed. The thing I regretted most was that his emotional center seemed to have been lost. He no longer thanked me for taking care of him. He quit saying I love you. Those little things would have made me feel better, so I grieved that loss. We were married for 58 years. There is a big hole in my life, but I don’t think I am avoiding grief. I think I have finished grieving for the most part.

  4. Suzanne Utts  March 3, 2020 at 6:49 pm Reply

    In reading this article, it seems that all the people in my life who have died were suffering before they died and I knew it. So much of my grief was anticipatory. Also I was usually the one who had to look after my family to the detriment of myself. (I’m being realistic here, not having a pity-party.) In addition to all that, they ALL loved the Lord, which is such a blessing, and I knew and am still comforted by the knowledge that I will see them again. I miss each of them, mom, dad, mother-in-law and my sweet husband who died of Alzheimers. (Anybody who has been the sole caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimers knows that horror and mind-numbing responsibility. I went on auto-pilot for so long.)

    I believe also that our family culture has a lot to do with how we grieve. Absence of tears and wailing, isn’t absence of grief.

  5. Lagatta de Montréal  February 5, 2020 at 9:35 am Reply

    Another case is when we learn that someone who had been severely abusive of us has died, in my case my older brother. Fortunately not sexually (he would now be called an asexual) but extreme physical violence, destruction of my possessions, my juvenile writings and paintings and so forth. I’m not at all happy about his sudden death, but I feel nothing.

  6. Patrick Cahill  February 4, 2020 at 8:44 pm Reply

    We lost our 37 year old son and father of twin three year olds 7 months ago from a very unusual aortic rupture. As his dad I knew that at first I would try to help everyone else (3 siblings, his wife, my wife, and the twins) through the first several weeks. But then I became worried that I wasn’t experiencing the same kind of gut wrenching emotional grief they were and which I expected I would. There have been some tears and days filled with sorrow , disbelief and numbness but never the intense crying only intense depression. I suppose it just blended into the ongoing grief we regularly experience as parents of two sons with autism and Asbergers syndrome. We’ve seen most of our dreams for them, a normal life, and our golden years shattered over and over again. This article was very helpful and I’m not feeling as weird anymore.

  7. Charmaine Tunn  January 22, 2020 at 4:28 pm Reply

    You articles nearly always hit a nerve with me! I always look forward to them. My beautiful son died nearly 7 months ago at the age of 34. I was devastated and experienced pain such as I could not imagine previously. Absolute misery. Crying anywhere and everywhere. About 3 weeks before Christmas I broke down on the phone to my sister who lives in another state and she came up to stay with me. At the same time I saw a qualified Psychologist for the first time who gave me ‘grounding’ exercises and breathing exercises. Also that week I saw my GP and was prescribed anti-depressant medication. The change has been monumental. It is good to have the relief but now I am worried that I am numb and simply cannot , in my mind, apply the word ‘death’ to my son. So is this OK? Maybe I am overmedicated? It is like the emotional grief has just stopped in its tracks to be replaced with a weird disconnection.

    • Cindy Kaplan  February 12, 2020 at 10:22 am Reply

      Hi Charmaine.
      I lost my son 2 1/2 months ago. It was awful. I’m Jewish and we held a “Shiva” which is visitors to the home. I was busy letting people hug me and seeing old friends. Talking and eating. I didnt cry.
      I worried about that. I worried about everything.
      I still worry. And I’ve had tearfilled days since. Many. I sleep. I stopped working even part time because my life has been too filled with pain before this happened. It’s time for me to rest.
      Your grief will be your grief. Mine will be mine. Others will have their own.
      I went to a grief group for parents who lost their children. I felt warmth, connection and acceptance in these folks with the same loss I am suffering.
      Dont worry. Just be. I’ve been on antidepressants for a million years. They balance things a little but dont numb pain. That’s my experience.
      I’m sorry for your loss. I think you are where you are supposed to be.
      I know that whatever I’m feeling now will keep changing. Not at the expense of the memory of my son.
      I forget things and do very odd things. Like frantically look for my phone while I’m talking on it. I simply said thank you to a friend who wrote me a long email. In 45 years I have been writing, visiting and talking to him. He lives in Europe. It freaked him out and he got worried.
      You just have to keep sharing and letting grief be organic. Sharing here helps to feel more ok.
      We are sisters.
      Cindy

  8. Itismoi  January 21, 2020 at 6:51 pm Reply

    I had always expected to be completely hopeless and helpless when my mother died. She was 94 and passed away two years ago freeing her from pain caused by complications from diabetes and just old age. We were very close, and it probably had something to do with our personalities. It could have been that I was the youngest of five siblings. Although we had that closeness, I felt nothing when she died , and I did not cry. I had spent an entire afternoon years before writing the service. Her brother had died, and my siblings asked if I’d taken care of that yet. My mother did not want to participate, so I finally just gave her options like which of these verses do you like the best. I already knew the songs to include. The service was emailed to the funeral director who presented it to my brother years later when my mother died. He was ecstatic that our mother had such forethought! It was my responsibility to shop for an appropriate dress for my mother, make decisions about the color of the boutonnières for the pallbearers, and to design the program. I screwed that one up and left the obituary off the back cover. My brother also reviewed it and approved it, so I didn’t feel too bad. The pianist and backup pianist at the church were not available. I contacted a friend who knew mother, and she gladly accepted the appointment. The funeral director bypassed my brother and came directly to me. We had dealt with each other the year before, and they were more comfortable with me than him. It bothered me a lot that all of my siblings were seated beside me during the service, holding each other’s hands and crying. No one reached over to take my hand. I wasn’t crying. It bothered me that, after the service, none of them nor their children hugged me although they were all exchanging hugs. It bothered me that I felt nothing for a woman, my mother, whom I loved so dearly. I decided that there wasn’t anything wrong with me really. After all, the year before when I became acquainted with the funeral director, it was to prepare for the service of my 21 year old daughter. Yes, I am still bothered and don’t understand their actions, but I realized long ago that I do love my mother, I have finally begun to grieve her loss, but sometimes we cannot “do it all”. When one is faced with a tragic loss followed by one that is expected, the tragedy outweighs the other. Mama would understand.

  9. Helen Hieb  January 21, 2020 at 6:24 pm Reply

    My husband committed suicide just over a year ago. It’s still shocking to me when I think about the moment I found him and the complicated feelings that I had about it. I waited for the intense, soul crushing grief to hit me for weeks and then months. Now it’s been over a year and I still have not cried about it, lost my cool, felt depressed. I am sad occasionally and I miss him being there to talk to and share my life events and interesting happenings, but I don’t think I feel any grief. Sometimes I think he is with me in spirit when I see a beautiful sunrise or find myself talking to the news program. Is it wrong to feel almost nothing for this long? Am I a cold heartless person because I didn’t grieve the way I think I should have? Do I feel guilt over his passing? Yes, I really do because I think I could have done more to help him. (please don’t explain to me that I shouldn’t feel that way – it’s my feelings and I am going to feel it). It’s just curious – I have thought often that it will hit me hard one day, but so far that day has not arrived.

  10. Carolyn Bjornstrom  January 21, 2020 at 3:11 pm Reply

    My 85 yr old husband died 4 months ago, not from one of his known medical conditions, but from a new and rapidly advancing illness that took his life. He was in Hospice care, in local facility that was well staffed, we actually had a private one bedroom furnished apartment. I was permitted to spend overnights with him. I went home briefly every day to handle mail, gmail, voice mail, and feed and water our cat. I kept my emotions under control. UNTIL I went in our home. Where I suffered intense flight or fight, actual physical feelings. I still have those feelings, except when I get behind the wheel of my car, even if it’s just a quick hop to the store. I believe this is #1, I’m taking physical action. Which flight/fight requires us to do. Rationally, I know I have nothing to fear. #2, I don’t associate him with grocery store, or the hairdresser, or the pharmacy etc, those were my “jobs”. #3, my/our home requires me to take on a lot of responsibility. For 45 years I swear we threw nothing out !! Either one of us. And this is too much for me. I’ve deferred the decision to sell, and go into an apartment, as right now I don’t trust my judgment. I want this feeling to go away.

  11. Marie  January 21, 2020 at 1:48 pm Reply

    Hello! It’s been a while since one of your articles hit a nerve. My Eric died almost four years ago. Recently, a friend observed that I seemed to have taken his death better than she thought I would. My husband and I were so close, I guess everyone expected me to fall apart. I did, too! So I’m not grieving like I expected to. But it doesn’t mean I’m not. It’s just so overwhelming (yes, still!) that when I feel that heaviness, I think of all the happiness we had. I feel quietly sad and then end up laughing about things he said. It works for me. Thank you for this web site. Marie

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