The Uncanny Nature of Grief

If I asked you to list a hundred words that describe your grief, my guess is “uncanny” wouldn’t be one of them.  By the end of today’s post I am hoping that “uncanny” makes it to at least #99 on your list, because I think this is a term that may capture a commonly experienced but little talked about grief phenomenon.  It is something we hear from people, but that can feel difficult to put into words.  So, if nothing else, we hope that considering the uncanny nature of grief may give words to something you’ve felt.  Or it may help you think a little differently about your interactions with the world after a loss.  I can feel your skepticism, but bear with me.  And don’t worry, I am going to try to keep this post short and sweet (for fear of letting the philosopher in me come out).

If I ask you to define uncanny and you say something “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way” or “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin” you would be absolutely right, according to all the standard dictionaries.  You would also probably be feeling confused what this has to do with grief.  But, if you know anything about psychological concepts, you may know there is a psychological definition of “uncanny” that Freud discussed and popularized it way back in 1919.  Thinking about this definition is what I think might help us label a grief experience that is worth talking about.

The psychological concept of the “uncanny” was first developed by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”.  He described the uncanny saying, “with the word unheimlich [‘uncanny’], the German language seems to have produced a rather fortunate formation. Without a doubt, this word appears to express that someone to whom something ‘uncanny’ happens is not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease’ in the situation concerned, that the thing is or at least seems to be foreign to him”.  He goes on to describe how things that are known and comfortable seem familiar, things that are new and foreign seem unfamiliar and unsettling. The “uncanny” is an experience that defies those circumstances by being both known and comfortable, while feeling unfamiliar, uncertain, and unsettling.

Freud really put this concept on the map when he wrote about it in the context of art and aesthetics, talking about things that are both familiar but create a sense of fear and dread.   The examples he gives are not grief related, and Freud works in concepts of repression that don’t really work for me.  But the basic concept of the “uncanny” is one that I think can help give words to a difficult to explain phenomena in grief: when the world around you, that was once totally comfortable and familiar, now suddenly feels uncertain, unfamiliar, and creates a sense of fear or dread.

It can be hard to express the pain of grief to another person because there are sooooo many ways it impacts us.  There is our sheer pain not having that person.  There are all the secondary losses we have to cope with and our changes in identity and sense of self.  There are the triggers in the world around us that remind us of the loss.  The “uncanny” describes another painful experience that is worth exploring and labeling, that the sensation of the comfortable, familiar world suddenly feeling foreign and sometimes unsettling that can come up in countless circumstances after a loss.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me give you some common examples to consider:

The person’s house

Though it may be your own home, or their house where you spent countless hours over many years, suddenly it feels totally different and uncomfortable.  Without that person there, who gave life and context to the space, there can be a sense of emptiness, discomfort, and even dread around being in the space.  It is simultaneously familiar and totally unfamiliar, giving that feeling that is hard to label or articulate.

The person’s belongings

It could be you wife’s favorite dress, the one she wore a hundred times, that now looks totally different and foreign as it hangs in the closet.  When my dad died it was his car, which became my car.  When I saw it parked in the driveway I remembered the sight and sound of him driving it, but it just felt like a strange, foreign object when he was no longer alive to drive it. I can remember driving the car, hearing the distinct sound of it in reverse, and feeling so unsettled that a sound that I always associated with my dad was now coming from this car I was driving.  Again, the familiar meets the unfamiliar in an unsettling way.

Holidays and special days

Holidays are often filled with rituals and traditions.  The decorations, the food, and the people are what create the familiar sense of comfort in holiday traditions.  When holidays roll around after a death, some people run the other way and decide to skip them or do everything differently.  Some people work tirelessly to make everything exactly as it has always been.  In the latter case, there can be an “uncanny” sense that everything is exactly as it “should be” yet things somehow feel uncertain and unfamiliar when the person we love and miss isn’t there.  Sometimes it can feel a bit surreal as you look around at what should feel “right” but instead it feels off or all wrong.

Normally I like to say something helpful and productive at the end of posts, but today isn’t really about that.  This is one of those posts that is about identifying something we have seen and heard people describe time and again, but that we hadn’t really seen described or labeled anywhere.  Maybe “uncanny” doesn’t fit it perfectly, maybe it does.  Either way, if you can relate to this feeling of the familiar suddenly feeling unfamiliar and unsettling in grief, leave a comment to tell us about it!  We would love to collect some of these experiences as we think more about the uncanny nature of grief.

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May 19, 2017

17 responses on "The Uncanny Nature of Grief"

  1. Hi Sue
    Very sorry for your loss, and also for the losses of everyone else here that wrote in, as well. I think society as a whole is basically stuck for an answer in dealing with death & loss. Even though death is as common as birth – no one wants to deal with it, unless you are punched in the face with it and have no choice. Who would want to? It’s scary, heartbreaking, uncontrollable, life changing forever, devastating, put in your own adjective, and yes, uncanny, that life does continue on around us – like our loss never even occurred. We are still required to function in the capacity we were in – before this nightmare became reality for each one of us.
    As a fairly new widow, I am finding that there are not a lot of people who care to help out, other than the first week or so. Everyone is so busy with their own life – how can I blame them for that? Maybe death hasn’t touched them in a while, or at all. And – women kind of look at me like I have “death cooties” that they don’t want to catch – can’t blame them there, either. They certainly don’t want to lose their husbands and be in my shoes, so yes, a lot of friendships we had with other couples, just evaporated. . I have no children, but luckily a neighbor/handyman who is like a son to me that I pay, and he does an excellent job for me around the house with things I can’t do, plus he really loved my husband as a father figure. I am only too grateful that I have some spare $ that I can pay for upkeep of the house. I want to be as independent as possible – hate to ask for any kind of help – would rather pay someone, than to rely on someone’s kindness. That only goes so far. As for the particular death that we are individually dealing with – we have to remember, I guess, that we didn’t cause it, we couldn’t control it, and we can’t change it. We can only COPE with it, the best we can, we have no other choice. This is what we were slapped in the soul with – in this sin filled world. And – we have a right to be angry – because death SUCKS. Death takes away someone so precious, that can never, ever be replaced – and changes you in ways that you could have never imagined. And – why wouldn’t we change? We are never the same person again – I don’t care how much time has passed.

    After my husband passed away in July, my Mom died at age 97, in September. I was also her caregiver, she lived with us and while I don’t miss the mess – she was bedridden & dementia, I certainly miss her, and being able to kiss her warm sweet little face as she lie there in her bed.. Somehow she knew, even though I couldn’t talk with her anymore, Ma’s little face wrinkled up with pain & tears in her eyes, as she saw the tears in my eyes, and hurt written all over my face, as I tried to tell her that my beloved husband died. I would just bend over her bed & hold onto her, and sob into her, she knew – mothers just know these things. Her little face brightened with joy when I came into her room to take care of her. She & I were best friends in earlier years, and even though she lost her ability to talk, she could still hug & kiss me. I am grateful to have fulfilled her wish of being able to stay with me, and not be put into a nursing home. She passed away peacefully in her sleep one night, and I found her the next morning.

    Then in January this year, I lost my best friend to pancreatic cancer. She was a fighter who inspired me. She’d goad me into getting out & doing things, to help get thru the grief. Then I lose her. I so miss our daily calls – she would tell me of her day & her latest fight with cancer, trying to avoid the prospect of her own approaching death, and I’d tell her of my agony & turmoil over the death of my husband … SO – at this point – I am not filled with a lot of wisdom, or platitudes – I cry almost every day, and write, and garden & talk with friends on the phone, keep up with church, and surf the net, eat out a lot with the girls, love my 4 doggies who help me get thru with their unconditional love, and just try to get past each day, trying not to look ahead too far, cause the landscape is desolate without my husband. And try not to look back too often, at the events surrounding his passing, because the pain is just too much to dwell on, and the knowledge that he is gone is still unbelievable. . Reading books about grief does help to a certain extent. If we believe in God, we are sure to be angry with Him – a lot – for allowing this death of our loved one. Been there – done that – still doing that. But – in the end – personally, for me, I realize that He is my only real hope. To heal, to somewhat understand, that this horror called death is something we will all have to face, either sooner or later, and eventually – with ourselves. Then – someone will be grieving us…. I have the personal hope of one day being reunited with my loved ones, especially my beloved husband. But it all seems so far off now, and I am still filled with much pain and emptiness. I don’t know any of you, yet I feel a connection with you, and I wish you all – strength and courage, and peace, where you can find it. God bless you all…

    • Lovey, I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved husband. Even though it hasn’t been long
      for you, you sure do have what it takes to get through it…and as a believer, I truly believe it’s God.
      My loss is my dear mother, who passed from her second bout with breast cancer 4 years ago.
      She knew how hard it would be for me grieving her, as she grieved her mother.
      But we tried to make the best of it in the end. My husband reading to her about heaven, us praying
      for a calm and even swift death to ease her pain.
      You seem to have that gentle personality where others will benefit from your experience of grief.
      That is what I think this is all about- us loosing those we love and trying to make sense of it.
      Yes, this is a fallen world, not what God planned. Heaven will be awesome and that has to be our hope or else there
      is no hope to see our loved ones and to finally see the God that created our loved ones…and thank Him for them.
      We are all pieces of Him and yes, we miss our loved ones…but He just wants us to know how much we’re loved so
      promises us renewal and reunion. This makes me smile instead of being in the pain that death is.
      Your wrote that you don’t feel you have any wisdom. I disagree because you have wisdom of your experience and can
      have empathy towards others, even though I’m sure you had it before. Now, you can be there when others get bad news.
      I know I’m alot better at handling others pain than my own. I think that’s a gift from God. We’re all here to help others, not overselves.
      That’s when I feel my best- not dwelling on my pain.
      Done with the rambling. Seems like these grief posts can get us all rambling on since it’s so hard to put our thoughts into words.
      Love to all, Wendy

  2. Uncanny is exactly how I felt when coming back into my best friends home. Myself and my husband and other family and friends were with our beloved Jude, every day in her home for ten days before she passed. It was in her bedroom where she took her last breath, that I had these uncanny feelings. It did not feel right being in her bedroom, and it also was so different being in her home.
    Thank you for sharing this, as it has explained a lot to me.

  3. Uncanny is exactly how I felt when coming back into my best friends home. Myself and my husband and other family and friends were with our beloved Jude, every day in her home for ten days before she passed. It was in her bedroom where she took her last breath, that I had these uncanny feelings. It did not feel right being in her bedroom, and it also was so different being in her home.
    Thank you for sharing this, as it has explained a lot to me.

  4. Valerie HohenbergerJune 10, 2017 at 10:32 pmReply

    I never had the word to descrbe the conflicting feelings that I have, but uncanny seems to fit! Thanks! Now maybe I can be a little more articulate when describng my feelins to others!

  5. Thank you for this post. Thank you to everyone who had the courage to share their personal stories. It has been twelve weeks since our son, our business partner, housemate and dearest friend died in our home, in his mother’s arms from a pulmonary aneurysm as the ambulance was arriving. It is uncanny how much fear one feels mingled with grief. In fact, so many conflicting emotions now reside in the same place and yet we manage to abide with them however uneasily. Uncanny is the right description.

  6. Elizabeth HilliardJune 7, 2017 at 2:16 pmReply

    As usual, you girls nailed it! This is spot on. Being in this empty house after losing my husband to melanoma just 7 months ago, is uncanny. Familiar yet so unfamiliar. The feeling of dread and fear is substantial. To compound that, I’m losing my job in 2 months and will move back to Denver, into the house we first lived in together. Lots of uncertainty and discomfort. Yet, I am also looking forward to moving back home where I have a much deeper support system of friends and family. I never really understood the word “uncanny” until you defined it. Thank you for writing another great article.

  7. I could relate to this article on many levels. I lost my so much loved husband almost a year ago, July 18, 2016. I still cannot believe he is gone – I guess I will be saying that until the day I die. I have no children, just the many pets that we both loved – most of all our 4 dogs. Because he passed so unexpectedly & suddenly, I don’t think I have yet come to grips with his absence. With his death, which is still so hard to even say, uncanny describes the fact that all his clothes, medications, medicine cart, even his iced tea bottle – still capped – are all here – stuffed in the spare room downstairs, but he isn’t. Also uncanny is the fact that although he had health issues, mainly COPD, he was holding his own, we were able to go out & have a nice social life with church & friends & family, on his good days. However – he passed so very quickly from septic shock after diverticulitis that we did not know he even had. Uncanny, that I was his health advocate, and was busy beating away all possible maladies, with his doctors, that I could think of that would attack him, and in the end – something unknown took him, and I could not help save him. Uncanny – also because I cannot stay in his man cave – which was our rec room also, and nicely furnished with a big screen TV, comfortable couches, lovingly decorated in a forest theme with pictures & figurines of woodland animals, fireplace, and large 55 gallon fish tank I put up for him. We were so comfortable there, in our own safe little world, just enjoying each other’s company – we didn’t really need any one else, we’d talk & make each other laugh – watched TV – had popcorn, and loved our dear doggies, just enjoyed each other & loved each other so very much. Now it’s all gone – stuff is there – but it doesn’t mean anything without him. Now when I go down there to feed the fish & turn on their light – I just almost run out of there – the empty room where we spent so much time together now screams HE’S NOT HERE ANYMORE! Uncanny that our two hearts, that were woven together as one, now is torn apart. The two that became one flesh according to God’s word, has been ripped apart, and this half person – me – is expected to go on for how much longer, only God knows. Uncanny that the person who I lived for is gone, and I am still here.

    • Hi Lovey: Your post is exactly how life is for me after losing my husband of 50 yrs. I, too, have a hard time going into our family room where we spent evenings watching TV & with the popcorn. I try to occupy my mind with volunteering but it is always there.
      I will be 5 yrs. on Dec. 15, 2017 but it still seems so recent. Only those who have walked in our shoes can understand .
      I wish you well.

    • Lovey I lost my husband in July 2016 unexpectedly. I feel your pain. The closer it gets to the 1 year date my anxiety and depression are out the roof. I am lost, lonely, scared all kinds of emotions. The pain of losing my soulmate hurts all over. Someone said to me today, you need to get over your depression. I told them Steve my husband was always by my side to make it go away. I know without Jesus I wouldn’t be here today. I know someday we will be together again 4-ever. My prayers go out to everyone on here. For those who have lost a child I wish I could give you a hug. May God wrap his arms around you and give you the comfort only he can. God bless each of you. Love and hugs.

  8. Struggling today. Weepy. It is my moms birthday and she passed away 13 years ago. I miss her so much. A year ago I was visiting family and had a great visit, then two weeks later on June 12, I got word my older brother age 59 unexpectedly passed away. I am so weepy today, and wonder why the good days when I feel almost normal again don’t last. Then I feel guilty as I know his wife and son hurt so much more. I miss them (and my Dad) who’s birthday was last week and passed away 28 years years ago sometimes feels so raw. I know I will always have these holes in my heart, but felt like I was coping so much better until my brother passed.

  9. My heart goes out to all of you. I too have lost my son in the last year. He was 18 and died of liver disease. Like you, I find it amazing that we somehow go on. And that we are in on the secret that these things can happen to anyone.

  10. This is too relatable; I have clients who also bring up the adjective “uncanny” when I ask them to describe their grief. Thank you so much for your insight! 🙂

  11. This is a great blog post. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. The word uncanny is definitely a fitting adjective to use within my grief life. That I have survived the death of my son … uncanny!! That I sleep and wake, uncanny. I feel thirst and hunger, uncanny. That there are mothers and fathers like me, surviving the death of our children. Uncanny, strange, surprising, mysterious…all of it. I shake my head and wonder how, how do we do it? It’s uncanny that the sun comes up and the stars shine at night when someone we love so much no longer feels the warmth of the sun and can’t share the beauty of the stars in the sky. Living has become uncanny.

  13. Yes I agree totally too…. I am very new on this path regarding my youngest son who is missing after a river rapids accident and not found, presumed trapped in underwater cavern. ( not so unfamiliar) as also stirring an older path of my daughter, oldest child where this older path of nearly 10 years from Melanoma has stirred. I realising that I will not be able to go back to my old normal…or infact my old old normal, that now I will have to find a new normal….which is not normal at all for anyone else…. ‘uncanny’.
    MY normal and comfortable now meeting and
    creating a sense of unknowing, uncertainty, not so much unfamiliar….but different – definitely ‘uncanny’

  14. Yes I agree uncanny seems a perfect word to use. We are only eleven months down the line after our son took his own life. The holidays and birthdays have been odd, normal but not; uncanny. Our daughter wearing his jacket, it was normal for her to nick his clothes but now feels just slightly off kilter; uncanny.
    All once comfortable but now uncomfortably, I am sure a new comfortable will replace the old comfortable eventually.

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