Loss takes many shapes.
Sometimes loss takes the shape of someone we knew well. It’s tangible and detailed and reflects many of the specific things we miss about that person, like the smell of their favorite detergent, the way they always sang slightly off key, and the corny jokes they couldn’t help but tell. These are the intimate details we grieve when a familiar loved one who occupied a particular space in our life dies.
Other times, when a person mourns someone they didn’t know as well, loss takes the shape of something a little more abstract and theoretical. They grieve for how the relationship could have been, should have been, or would have been had things been different. In these instances, the loss is very much real, though it may feel hard to define.
Grief over the loss of someone you didn’t know, or hardly knew, can occur in a hundred different ways, but for our purposes, I think we can split it up into two main categories.
The first category is when someone grieves a person who they were aware of, but who they were not connected to in any way – such as when a celebrity dies. If this is the type of loss that brought you here, head over to this article for a more in-depth discussion.
For the purposes of this article, we want to focus on grief experienced over someone connected to you, usually by relation, who has been absent or who died before you had the chance to get to know them. Examples include individuals who died when you were very young, relatives who have always been out of the picture, and people who you have lost touch with for long periods.
One of the most important things to note about these types of losses is that they are at a higher risk of being disenfranchised. Disenfranchised grief happens when someone experiences a loss that those in their family, friend groups, community, or broader society are reluctant to validate or support.
Unfortunately, unless you’ve experienced grief over someone you hardly knew yourself, it can be challenging to understand because it’s not immediately obvious what, specifically, there is to grieve. So people may make comments like, “Your mother left you, so why do you care about her?” or, “You didn’t even know your uncle, why are you so sad he died?” Even those who are at least aware enough not to say hurtful things may still meet your loss with silence or indifference.
Heck, you may even experience self-stigma by saying similar things to yourself, denying yourself the right to grieve or the right to ask for support, or wondering, “Why am I struggling with grief over someone I didn’t know?” or “Do I even have a right to grieve this loss?”
If you are grieving someone you hardly knew, or who you didn’t know at all, you need to know that this is indeed a type of loss that can cause grief. Now, this doesn’t mean that a person is abnormal if they don’t grieve a relation they never knew. It merely means that your response – grief or no grief – is normal either way.
Most people negotiate the ups and downs of interpersonal relationships daily. So we grow used to the idea of working through conflict with those we interact with. What we aren’t used to is navigating complicated emotion felt towards people who are gone or who were, perhaps, never really present.
Generally speaking, grieving people feel things – good and bad – towards their deceased relatives all the time. When a person dies, the relationship doesn’t all of a sudden become one-dimensionally good. Nuanced thoughts and feelings remain, and the grieving person is left trying to figure out how to work through things like regret, anger, guilt, blame, and resentment even though the other person is physically gone.
The same goes for grieving someone who you didn’t really know. You may feel abandoned or unloved by the person, regret over not taking the time to get to know a distant relative, cheated and resentful that death stole your opportunity to have a relationship with the person, and so on.
Coulda’s, Woulda’s, Shoulda’s:
When someone you hardly knew dies, your grief may manifest around different types of thoughts, emotions, and secondary losses than it would if you had known the person well. For instance, your grief may focus more on abstract losses, like what could have been or should have been, than tangible losses.
For example, instead of mourning a specific part the person played in your life, you may grieve the role they should have played. Instead of mourning particular memories of the past, you may regret the fact that you never had the chance to make these memories. Perhaps you had held out hope of one day having a relationship with the person and now that they have died you’re grieving the loss of that dream.
Contrary to popular belief, grief does not follow a trajectory in which a person grapples with the pain, resolves their grief, and moves on. Can this happen? In certain instances, but more often, we find that bereaved individuals will continue to revisit their grief and their feelings about the absent or deceased person throughout their lifetime. Yes, this is true even if they didn’t know the person at all or well.
Consider a son whose father died before he was born. It would not be at all surprising if the boy felt loss over and over again, each time his father wasn’t there but should have been if only life were only fair. Soccer games, learning to drive, graduation, getting married, becoming a father himself – according to the concept of regrief – he may feel his loss anew at each of these milestones and, over time, come to understand his father, his grief, and the role it plays in his life in new and different ways.
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