In a World Filled With Loss, Who Gets to Grieve?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


Over the last few weeks, like many of you, I’ve been watching press conferences and reading articles about the-virus-that-shall-not-be-named. I’ve been consuming copious amounts of information about the severity of the current situation and what it means for the foreseeable future. 

It’s upsetting.

I feel paralyzed by questions like – “Will things ever go back to normal?  What have we lost? What will be lost in the days and weeks to come?”. And, yet, in many ways, my mind won’t let me accept some of the harsher realities. Even now, I go to bed every night with the feeble hope that the morning headline will read, “Things not as bad as they seemed!” 

After years supporting people at the time of a loved one’s sudden and unexpected death, I’ve learned that our protective cognitive barriers are far more permeable than our psychological ones. Our brains may grasp truths that our psyches are slower to integrate.

My psyche is starting to catch up.

Relatively speaking, my family has been fortunate so far. Which is to say, everyone is currently healthy. Most of our losses take the shape of minor sacrifices, financial hardship, and the despair of knowing the world’s turned on its head, people are dying, and much more loss is still to come. But everyone is going through this so, like many, I’ve questioned whether our losses even count.

I want to take a second to tell you about something called ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss happens when you’re not entirely sure who or what you’ve lost. It’s different than the grief you experience when someone you love dies. That kind of loss is finite and certain, and there’s no question you should feel pain.

Ambiguous grief happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away like a Polaroid developing in reverse. 

Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

Learning about ambiguous loss has taught me something that I find so helpful. It is that two seemingly opposite things can be true at once. An example that’s commonly seen with ambiguous grief is when someone grieves a change in a person, relationship, or circumstance while also hoping that the relationship or circumstance will get better or be repaired.  

Who gets to grieve?

I think something many people are struggling with right now is a profound sense of sadness and loss, but also the feeling that it’s selfish to grieve. Either because their sacrifices serve a higher purpose or because they know others are suffering much worse. But why can’t these things be true at the same time as your grief and loss?

Life is seldom as either/or as we think it is; one reality does not take away from or erase the other. You can feel pain, hope, and gratitude all at the same time. Losses can serve a higher purpose and be sad all at the same time. And your grief over a minor loss does not take away from your compassion towards those experiencing more devastating losses. 

It’s not wallowing or self-centered to grieve the loss of things like weddings, proms, graduations, sports seasons, parties, religious observance, funerals, togetherness, support, and connection. These things are an extension of individual values like family, friends, intimacy, parenting, spirituality, career, and community. So they are connected to your higher purpose.  

Considering the circumstances, you might even see your grief as having a higher purpose. Right now, people are going through horrible, traumatic, earth-shattering things. And when this is all over, they’re going to need to find support in a grieving world. So now, more than ever, we have to maximize our capacity for compassion – and this doesn’t mean denying ourselves of it. 

As prominent self-compassion researcher and author Kristin Neff has written,

“If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.”

If you show compassion towards your struggles, you may be more likely to show compassion towards others. So rather than minimizing other people’s pain and anxiety because “Hey, we’re all suffering here. It could be worse.” you might be more inclined to stop and think, “Though I don’t know exactly how this person feels, I recognize their pain and I bet they could use some kindness and support.”

Things are beyond upsetting.

Let’s face the pain.  

Let’s hold each other up.  

Let’s grow stronger together.

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17 Comments on "In a World Filled With Loss, Who Gets to Grieve?"

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  1. Bonnie  May 20, 2020 at 10:28 pm Reply

    It has been 4 years since my husband’s death and I love him as much as I ever did. The grief can be so intense, yet I feel like it’s been too long for me to feel like this. So I judge and criticize and hide myself. Self compassion sounds wonderful!

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  2. Laura Pritchard  May 9, 2020 at 5:07 pm Reply

    I feel like some of my grieving has been taken away from me because *everyone* is dealing with all this virus stuff. It doesn’t matter to people that I’m sitting here alone and sad because everyone else is too.

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  3. Pat Castellano  May 5, 2020 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Needed to hear this. Thanks.

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  4. Laura Hileman  March 30, 2020 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Thank you for explaining what people are feeling and giving people permission to grieve the “little” things.

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  5. Mary T Everett  March 30, 2020 at 1:58 am Reply

    This helps with me understand why I am feeling the way I feel . Through the tears still roll down my cheeks I’m not able able to pin point any one thing that makes me sad or fearful. Overwhelmed I guess. I consider myself to be one of the lucky one’s in that so far my family is healthy and we have TP (LOL). I will continue to have Hope and pray for better days ahead.

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  6. Paula  March 29, 2020 at 9:52 am Reply

    Awesome article! Just what I needed right now in this extraordinary time. Thank you!

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  7. RituBhagat  March 28, 2020 at 12:03 am Reply

    RituBhagat

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