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Everywhere I turn people are talking about grief, all types of grief. Mostly they are trying to make sense of this complicated world we're in, which I totally understand. I am someone who writes about grief. I'm also a mental health professional. I'm also a human being who has lost two good friends and a family member in the last three months.
In reading all these articles, I am some strange combination of heartened and annoyed. Weird, I know. On the one hand, I am so glad to see it acknowledged, to see support for all the loss in the world right now. And on the other hand, I am annoyed by the messaging I keep seeing which implies there are simple labels, easy answers, or quick fixes. Spoiler alert: there aren't.
One of the confusing things right now is that we talk about this "current crisis" as though it is just one thing. We are all getting a lot of messages trying to label what we're going through. This is ambiguous grief. What you're feeling is anticipatory grief. This is existential anxiety. And on and on. But the reality is that this crisis is many things, impacting many areas of life and creating many losses.
Each of us is having an individual experience. We are having different losses within this crisis. Our circumstances are wildly varied. We are all coping in different ways. What we are coping with in the world at the moment isn't any one thing. So today we just want to quickly explain a bunch of things. Not to overwhelm you (we hope), but because we want to make sure you know there is a lot to what people are feeling and experiencing right now.
Some things you read about, here or elsewhere, might be relevant to you. Some might not be relevant to you, but you might be seeing them in the world around you. It's a lot, and it's normal.
7 Types of Grief and Loss to Know Right Now
We talk about types of grief all over this website, but we know at this moment you might not be interested in reading through full posts on different types of loss to sort out what you're going through. So we've created some cliff notes of those we think might be the most relevant.
A person can grieve the loss of anything significant to their physical, psychological, spiritual, and interpersonal lives. Throughout a person's life, they will experience many non-death losses. Some will feel minor and manageable—while other losses feel devastating and life-altering.
Many types of losses are capable of causing complicated emotions, difficulties in daily functioning, and impairment in one’s ability to move forward. These losses are often significant enough to require a decent amount of processing and, like after a death, grievers often view their lives in terms of "before" and "after" the loss. You can read our full post about non-death grief this here. Or if you prefer to listen, you can check out our podcast episode on non-death losses.
When it comes to grief, it is easy to focus on the one, big, central, or "primary" loss that someone is experiencing. But the reason grief can feel like it upends every area of life is that a primary loss can kick off a string of secondary losses. After experiencing a devastating loss, grieving people are often surprised to find there is a ripple effect of subsequent losses.
The primary loss causes such significant shifts and fractures that there is a domino effect of losses related to things like finances, friends, community, worldview, faith, sense-of-self, and the list goes on. There is a lot to be said about this topic, so read our full post on secondary loss here. Or, if you prefer to listen, our podcast episode on secondary loss is right here.
This feels like a tough one to sum up in a sound bite here, because there is so much to ambiguous loss. Pauline Boss has been bringing us amazing research on this for over forty years. Ambiguous loss happens when you're grieving someone who is still living. 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 loss 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.
One type of loss is when we grieve someone who is still physically present in our lives but who is "psychologically absent" (because of something like dementia, substance use, or a traumatic brain injury). The other is the type we are seeing more of right now, grieving someone who we can't physically be with. We have a whole post on the former type of ambiguous loss here, and a post on the latter type of ambiguous loss here.
You can probably take a guess at what this is. Cumulative loss refers to the experience of suffering a new loss before you have the chance to grieve a first loss. It comes up when we suffer multiple losses in quick succession. It's important to note, grieving the death of a loved one is never really "done". It's common for new losses to bring up memories and emotions about past losses. So some amount of cumulative grief is almost always a given. When we become overwhelmed by anything our mind kicks into an incredibly powerful defense mechanism, which is avoidance.
Though avoidance may seem like a really bad thing (and it can be), it can be our body’s way of keeping us functioning in the short term. When we are overloaded with multiple losses, this avoidance allows us to maintain our day to day activities, which in many cases is adaptive. What becomes important when losses have become cumulative is an awareness that we may need to make a concerted effort to begin the work of facing the reality of the loss, as this avoidance can’t continue indefinitely. If you're coping with cumulative grief, you can check out our full post here.
From childhood, people form ideas about how they think and hope their lives will turn out. People imagine, make choices, and work towards the future they think they want and, in some cases, need. But many things are out of one's control, When someone doesn't have the child, partner, job, or life they want, they may experience nonfinite grief. Nonfinite grief is something a person may carry with them for a long time. It continues as they struggle with the push and pull of trying to achieve their hopes and dreams but continually finding that life falls short of their expectations.
Any time our life doesn't match up with our expectations or schema, we are at risk of non-finite grief. If the world is bringing up a lot of dissonance between what you thought things would look like and what they do look like at the moment, this might be the word to describe what you're coping with!
If there is one type of grief that people are familiar with beyond regular-old-grief, it is often anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is grief that occurs before a potential loss. Any time circumstances lead a person to think that death is a real possibility, they may start to grieve aspects of the loss. Anticipatory grief doesn't mean that a person will grieve any less. It just may mean they process elements of the loss more slowly and overtime. Anticipatory grief brings up a lot of complicated emotions, so please check out our full post on anticipatory grief here.
Disenfranchised grief is when a person feels denied the right to grieve by family, friends, community members, or society on the whole. When a loss is disenfranchised, it means the grieving person isn't getting the support or validation they need. This means different things to different people. Where one person only needs validation from themselves, another person may feel they need the acknowledgment of their entire family, community, or society.
Regardless, the impact of disenfranchised grief is that the person experiencing it feels alienated, invalidated, ashamed, weak, etc. There are so many, many things that can feel disenfranchised depending on your own experience and your own support system. If you're feeling this experience, check out our full post on disenfranchised grief here.
What about traumatic grief?
You may be wondering about traumatic grief. There is a lot to be said about that and we can't sum it up in just a couple sentences, so if this is on your mind just head on over to our full article on grief after a traumatic loss.
Want to hear us talk a bit more about all of these? We gotcha. Check out our podcast episode on this topic below.
What do you think? Relate? Don't relate? Leave a comment! And as always, subscribe over in the sidebar to get our weekly update right to your email!
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: