Grieving Someone You Didn’t Know (or Hardly Knew)

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.

9 Reasons It Is Not Crazy To Grieve A Celebrity Death

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.


Disenfranchised Grief:

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.


Complicated Emotions:

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. 


Ongoing Grief:

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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June 20, 2019

14 responses on "Grieving Someone You Didn't Know (or Hardly Knew)"

  1. This article helped me understand the feelings I’m feeling about the sudden death of a client who paid me some wonderful compliments and who I got to know over the past several months. It has been a week since his death and I have been affected by it, I have noticed some changes in myself…grumpy and mopey, crying, snapping at my dogs, etc.
    Thank you. I can put things into perspective now.

  2. This really helped.

    I found out today my Grandfather passed.

    We weren’t close, I have a few blurry childhood memories of him and one that is quite clear.

    When I was young my parents decided to move across the world so I was separated from my entire extended family on both sides. My parents divorced soon after so I have found myself without anything I could ever really call family despite having a large amount of direct relatives. I didn’t expect news of his passing to hit so hard, but it has. I think that I am grieving the loss of how things could or should have been – the relationship I was deprived of not just with him but with my entire extended family because of a decision I had no say in.

    I’ve reached out to family on my mothers side in the last year and have slowly been learning more about my culture, and family history that I was never told by my mother. Realizing that I’ll never have the chance to meet my Grandfather as an adult is kinda crushing as I had hoped to at least once before he died.

    I feel like I don’t have the right to be sad or to grieve, because we weren’t close. I feel almost like an impostor but then again why would I make myself be sad for no reason?

  3. Thank you for this article. Three weeks ago I lost my second cousin (I was raised with). He was found dead in a pool and I was planning to send him a message that following week to meet for Christmas, but that time never came and even though I helped with the funeral, I felt I didn’t have the right to grieve since their family was the one who lost a son, a brother due to drowining, I was just a vage memory. I still question myself, if my grief is right or not since most of my memories with him are very blurry, and we didn’t in fact had a legit relationship, even though my mom said I was a lot like him which makes me even more furious of what could have been. I always said to myself that when the time came I would tell me how much he inspired me and how eager I was to spend the holidays with him.

    Thanks for taking time for those of us

    I don’t sometimes I feel i’m being dramatic, but another times, I really hate myself for taking time for granted.

  4. I lost my daughter before she was born. She was very sick and the chances of her having any quality of life was slim to none. We had to make the hardest decision of our lives and not continue on with the pregnancy. Which lead to our hardest day of our lives when we went to the hospital. I never got to know my daughter Finley or even get to hear her cry. Life seems impossible now and all of my memories of my girl are the sad and filled with unbearable pain.

  5. Thank you for this article… I’m experiencing this right now. A guy that I graduated high school with, and partied with a few times, just passed away from an overdose. I hardly knew him… But I knew him for about 10 years, my community is quite small, and the news of him passing hit me harder than I would have expected. I just spoke to him a few months ago. He had reached out to me on Facebook and we got the chance to chat and catch up a little bit. We talked about how we both had gotten clean and were living a healthy life now. We both said we were proud of each other and talked about how life being clean was so much better and happier. We didn’t ever talk too much, but we had mutual friends and I knew enough about him to know that him getting his life together was a huge step forward, and I was so proud of him. He was a really sweet guy. Always made people laugh. He lit up a room when he walked in. I honestly can’t remember the sound of his laugh, it had been so long since I’d seen him, but I do remember that it was a contagious one. He had asked me to go for coffee with him some time, when we were chatting that day. I said no because I was kind of talking to/had a thing with someone, and I didn’t think I should hang out with another guy. People talk in a small community, and I just didn’t want to put myself in a situation that I might have to explain later on. So I didn’t go. I never even got into a relationship with that other guy I kind of had a thing with. And looking back now.. I wish I had gone for coffee and spent some time with him, when he asked. But I didn’t know it would be the last time we ever spoke. There’s no way I even could have known… We weren’t close, but there were so many things we could have caught up on and related on.. Stories we could have compared, and shared laughs and even tears over. We could have been really good friends, had I given him some of my time. That was the last time I’d talked to him or heard from him.

    I found out this morning that he passed away from an overdose. I didn’t even know he had started using again. I spent a couple months in treatment, I had my own struggles and things going on in my life. So how could I have known? I shed a few tears today, hearing the news. And my heart has just been so heavy all day. But I also feel really guilty for feeling so sad for someone I really didn’t know that well. I guess grief is different for everyone. And there are different kinds of grief. I’m grieving the loss of what could have been. The loss of someone young, and good, who was taken away by the evils of addiction. I’m grieving for the loss that our mutual friends, who knew him well, are feeling right now. My heart hurts for them.. And his poor family. I’m also grieving, once again, the loss of loved ones who death always reminds me of. Death is a strange and confusing thing. And so is grief. I appreciate this article.. It makes me feel less guilty for the mix of feelings I have today. I wish I could have known him better… And I’m sad that I will never get to now. His funeral is next week, and I think I’m going to go. Pay my respects for a good man, who died far too young, and to support our mutual friends who are going through this difficult time. And to say goodbye to a friendship that will now never be. It’s a strange feeling… grieving the loss of an acquaintance… But it is grief, nonetheless.

  6. My grandmother who I was not very close to passed away last week. Her funeral was yesterday. We didn’t see much of my grandma growing up, although we would visit for Christmas, occasional birthdays, family BBQ’s. My dad had a rocky relationship with his mom, he told me stories that made me think that she had depression(I suffer from depression and know that some of the things he told me sound a lot like it). Back in the 40s and 50s people didn’t talk about these things and kept it private mostly, and there wasn’t much in the way of medication back then.
    Anyways, I was fine until a couple days ago but then I’ve been feeling like my depression is coming back because I couldn’t possibly be grieving for someone I wasn’t really that close to…could I? It CAN’T be grief..could it?
    After reading this I realize I think this is exactly what it is.

  7. On September 17, 2017 I found a voicemail left a few hours earlier from the sister of my dear friend, Di, I knew since kindergarten. She reported that Di’s youngest son died that very morning of an overdose at the age of 23. I spoke with Di and naturally she was in shock at the time but my heart broke for her and I wept for several minutes after hanging up…to this day I find myself saddened over this loss and the toll it has taken on Di, even though I barely knew the son, Timmy, whom I met only a couple times when he was much younger. In this respect I can relate, but in my case it seems to be more of an empathetic response, knowing how much my friend had already been through and now sharing some of her ongoing pain of losing a child. I have never lost a child myself but I can vaguely imagine how painful this could be. This happened months after a string of 11 people I know, some of whom I was close to (including my mom) passed away over a period of 9 months. I have learned so much about grief over the last two years, four months (since Mom passed…)

  8. This post really hit home. My father died in a car accident when I was 6 years old. Most of my cousins are much older than I am. My father was the favourite uncle and I have always envied my cousins for the years they had with him that I did not. When they would tell me their memories of him, it wasn’t comforting. Instead, it made me angry and sad that I, his only child, barely had any memories of my own and that I didn’t get to really know him. When I’ve told people how I feel, they’re shocked. They assume I will love hearing stories about him. I do, but it’s always bittersweet and a jumble of emotions. I’m relieved to learn that my reaction is not unusual.
    Recently, my daughter in law died of breast cancer leaving behind 3 children, ages 6, 4 and 1. My son and I want to keep her memory alive for them but I’m ambivalent because I know they’ll feel the same way that I do – angry that death robbed them of the chance to create their own memories of her.

  9. I recently read the book “The Wisdom of Our Fathers” by Tim Russert. He wrote in back in 2006 and it is a collection of letters he received about fathers who raised children back in the 1950s and 1960s. The children’s loss was not having a close relationship with their fathers who were somewhat emotionally distant. They showed their love by working long hours and “putting food on the table and a roof over the head.” The children’s loss was that they never felt close to their father, because even when they became adults, the works “I love you” were not heard. Time went by and the fathers passed away. The children’s grief was a combination of losing the parent and the opportunity to make their relationship evolve into more of an adult friendship. One interesting letter that Tim Russert received was a child who became disconnected from the father as a young child through divorce or an early death, I don’t remember. The daughter said this gave her the opportunity to make her father whoever she wanted him to be. It pains me to see comments about those grieving wish they “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” After the death of my wife of 44 years and having to make difficult decisions, I had some blame and guilt I carried around that no one but me could justify. A healing thought someone shared with me was, “If it should have been, it would have been.” I think that simple thought applies to many people who wish there was a different path through life they should have pursued. We all have our limitations of time and resources. You are all wonderful people to feel grief and share the pain of others leaving this earthly life too soon.

  10. Thank you for this post. I lost my dad at 4 years old to cancer and all these words ring true for me. I am now 23 and this past year I have grieved more than any other time in my life. His absence hits me harder at each new milestone. We both ran track in high school yet he wasn’t able to ever watch me run. I went to the same college as him and yet he wasn’t at my graduation. Now as I approach adult chapters (first job, first apartment on my own, marriage, kids, etc), I know the grief will resurface with each of these new milestones.

    I can attest that it has been an ongoing struggle to grapple with the Coulda’s, Woulda’s, Shoulda’s . A lot of times I feel robbed of the life I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve had with my dad. Another thing that has been prevalent throughout my grief journey is the envy and resentment I can carry towards mom, my dad’s family, and my dad’s friends who all got the time with my dad that his own two daughters did not. They at least have years of memories with him whereas I was too young to remember anything from my short 4 years with him. Sure, the memories from those people help and I have them share them with me when I really miss my dad, but it’s still defeating that I don’t have my own. I feel as his daughter, I ought to have the most memories, second to my mom, with him.

    Just some thoughts from my own experience- thanks for continuing to create space for all types of grievers on your page!

  11. I’m grieving for my absolute best friend whom I last communicated with in 1984. With his sudden lack of further communication and his parents not knowing where he was 2 years in a row afterwards I automatically assumed the worst. This past March to get closure on what I was almost sure of I contacted his dad who had recently joined Facebook, asked about my bestie, does he have contact info etc. He gave me the news that my bestie died 10 years ago from being hit by a semi and his brother a week later added it was deliberate, that he had a lot of issues which I never saw in our 5 years together in Middle School and High School. I went into a funk that persists 3 months later. My best friend was alive all that time not dead like I assumed in 1986. All those years we could have continued our friendship (I found out he’d joined the military apparently without saying anything to his patents). His profile showed him as a 42 year old apparently enjoying his life. I grieve not only his death but the fact we never reconnected due to my stupidity assuming he died 35 years ago, not that he left home and didn’t inform his family. He was practically a brother to me during our 5 years together as teenagers. My teen years were my happiest ever due to a few really good friends of which he was A Number 1.

  12. Thank you! This kind of loss is so important to highlight. Some examples of other scenarios:
    *grieving a birth mother you weren’t allowed to ever meet (and when you searched for them – found out they were deceased). As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I helped a someone who was adopted, reflect and create a personal small “ceremony” to do when they were able to visit their birth mother’s grave on a road trip out of province. This person couldn’t understand why the feelings of grief were there since they have never met. But there is still a connection – they were once in their mother’s womb and heard her heartbeat. They grieve not having a chance to know their mother. Having this small time of remembrance really helped.
    *grieving an unborn child lost through miscarriage or stillbirth for example – I’m sure this is covered elsewhere but it’s another scenario where the only memories may be of a positive pregnancy test or the months of pregnancy, or perhaps the stillbirth. The parents and grandparents and others don’t have the huge cache of memories to draw upon that other relationships that are years or decades long have. And yet this loss is huge and profound.

    My cousin and I have always wished we could have known our grandfather. He died before we were born, but in him we knew we would have experienced another father figure (grandfather figure) we both really needed in our lives. We both visit his grave, and talk “to” him there. This is a loss to us. For me it isn’t as intense as my other losses, but it’s still a loss.

    Thanks so much for sharing and validating!

  13. This is something I am dealing with right now. An acquaintance recently lost her beautiful granddaughter very unexpectedly and tragically after a three-week hospitalization. I never met the child or her parents – I only knew her through the blog the parents shared to catalog her final journey. Two years ago my own baby grandson lost his battle with liver disease, so the little girl’s story hit very close to home. I grieve for the lost life of the little girl; I grieve for her parents – I can’t even imagine the depth of their own grief; and I especially grieve for the grandmother’s loss, with whom I can totally identify. It stirs up my own grief once again for my little grandson as well. I’ve struggled with the depth of my grief for a little girl I didn’t know, and for her family, so this article really hits home and lets me know it’s okay, and even “normal”, whatever that is. Thank you for sharing.

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