The Grief of Non-Death Losses

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


Our society seems pretty comfortable with the following if-then logic.

“If there has been a death, then there will be grief.”

This logic is easily observed and understood by just about anyone. Take a look at Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘Grief’:

Deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.

We willingly recognize that when a person dies, it’s almost certain someone close to them will grieve. We have a myriad of rituals and etiquette based on this premise, and as loving friends and family, we are poised and ready to offer our support and comfort should it be needed. 

With the correlation between death and grief being so blatantly obvious, we often believe we can reverse the logic to assume:

“If there is grief, then there has to have been a death.”

Now I am horrible at math and all things related. However, I did confirm via this regents prep website (shout out NY public schools) that in a ‘conditional statement‘ when the second condition (the then statementis false, the whole statement is false. 

And notice our grief definition says grief is caused especially by a death, not exclusively. 

If we want to change the statement to make it true, then I think it should read:

“If there is grief, then there has been a loss.”

So why doesn’t Oxford choose a more comprehensive yet simpler definition like:

Deep sorrow caused by loss

I have no idea how definitions are determined so I’m just going to assume that a definition of grief without emphasis on the word death seems too unnatural. However, I’m here to prevail upon you that it certainly is not.

Here is how Oxford Dictionaries defines ‘Loss’ (as it pertains to our discussion):

The fact or process of losing someone or something

The state or feeling of grief when deprived or something or something of value

A person or thing that is badly missed when lost

Okay, so now we’re getting somewhere.


Society needs to broaden its understanding of loss and grief. There are many kinds of losses capable of evoking a grief response, and these responses vary from person to person and differ in duration, depth, and complexity. 

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, just like after a death, grievers often view their lives in terms of before and after the loss. Here’s a brief list of events that can evoke feelings of loss and grief:

Illness or Injury

Shift or weakening of the family/support system

Loss of employment or another role

Abuse

Trauma

Exposure to death or trauma

Loss of home

Incarceration

Marital discord

Divorce

Separation

Being the victim of a crime

Mental Illness

Dementia

Serious illness

Infertility

Divorce

Empty nest

Substance abuse

Addiction

Rehabilitation

Life transition

Estrangement

These events can have a profound impact on one’s emotional wellbeing. They may cause individuals to experience grief due to loss of security, hopes, dreams, innocence, independence, health and mobility, comfort, community, connection, love, intimacy, immortality, trust, and faith. One may also feel grief due to shifts in their self-perception, identity, purpose, or worldview.

I don’t think anyone can fully understand grief until they expand their definition to be inclusive of all types of loss. Especially because many of these losses occur as secondary losses after a death. And it’s essential to understanding how dynamic a person’s situation becomes when they have multiple losses to reconcile. 

Furthermore, new losses can drudge up emotions related to old losses, while old losses can magnify and complicate one’s ability to deal with further losses. And you thought my logic statements were complicated!

Heck, let me complicate things a little further by pointing out that when a person’s losses are minimized, unacknowledged, or disenfranchised, they will likely experience: 

  • A lack of support from friends, family, and society who don’t understand the significance of the loss
  • Uncertainty about whether they have the right to grieve
  • Feelings of being misunderstood, unsupported, disenfranchised, etc
  • Harmful avoidance and negative coping, etc.

Unfortunately, many of the circumstances that lead to loss are complicated – job loss, divorce, illness – one needs to navigate paying bills, details, legalities, treatments, etc. Keep swimming, stay afloat, who can worry about anything else? 

But we can’t always out swim our losses, and leftover feelings of sadness, anger, regret, guilt, and anxiety loom ominously in the dark and murky water. So we must give ourselves and others the permission to acknowledge and grieve these losses.

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16 Comments on "The Grief of Non-Death Losses"

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  1. Barb Rogers  January 21, 2020 at 1:43 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. I agree that grief happens in many stages of life. Losses along the way to full maturity come along, and are usually accepted since we have our own careers, homes, friends and a life to live. When we are in our teens, 20’s, 30’s and up to about 60, we are supported by our activities and large (or small for many) social network. Everyone is alive and well!
    Flash forward 40 years. You have been married to your greatest love. They get ill and we deal with it. They loss limbs and organs from Diabetes, and we deal with it. They have moved to a Nursing home and the complexities of a health system that is overburened, unsympathtic, and undertrained. The ONLY way to survive these challenges and systems is to have a strong advocate who is with the ill and elderly throughout their very sad changes. For us, we found humour and a closer love every day together, even in the ICU Units. Again we dealt with it daily, but together. The key word to my loss and many other’s in the death of a spouse, is that we deal with life together. When my love died almost three years ago from Diabetes and the horrid complications of that disease, I lost my best friend, not just a spouse. It has left me “frozen” feeling for a lack of a better word. It has left such a void in my life like no other. This has been my most immense loss, and friends have doled out only social plattitudes like “he is in a better place”, which is the worst! I have found people to be extremely distant and reluctant to speak about death and loss, as if it is contageous. They lack heart and understanding for the ones left behind.
    Our Western Society could do better than this. People’s fears of taking about, remembering and honouring the dead are self-centered and cold. There are many of us that have experienced the ultimate sad ending of the “Circle of Life”, and need understanding and kindness after our loss as well.
    I am sorry for the other women who have lost their beloved partners.

    3
  2. Alicia  May 13, 2016 at 5:23 pm Reply

    All of the above losses will invoke various levels of grief in people. But I beg to differ in that there is NO loss comparable to losing a beloved one to death. So many people after a divorce or loss of a job will often look back and say that it was awful at the time but there lives are now better because they finally met their soul mate, found their dream job etc. I don’t think any of the above falls into the ‘just like a death’ category. The loss in the above situations is the loss of a dream but the people involved are still alive.. In grieving after a death we also deal with the loss of dreams and futures but we also live with the fact our loved will never return. There exists no possibility of a positive ending. No, there is no grief like the grief of death. There is no loss like the loss of death. I wouldn’t have thought so until I experienced it myself.

    • Litsa  May 14, 2016 at 12:01 am Reply

      Alicia, you are absolutely entitled to you opinion based on your experience of death being the worst loss for you, but it becomes problematic when that gets extended to everyone. In our collective 15+ years in grief and mental health we have talked to so many people who have said variations of “I thought this death would be the worst thing that I could experience until X happened”. Like your statement not thinking there was anything like the experience of a death loss until you went through it, many others have said the very same thing to us about other non-death losses, having never thought it could be the case until they went through it. Though you are right that some rebound from non-death losses, like divorce, losing a job, illness etc, the groups we run weekly in a homeless shelter highlight that for some people, years and decades later they have never re-established even a fraction of the life they had previously. Though I first started to consider the flaw in assuming deaths are always the worst losses by hearing it as a mental health professional from clients, I later started to understand it myself first hand. I saw my sister spiral into addiction and, as the years passed and it crushed me and my mom in every way, not to mention what it did to my sister, I began to understand the depth of grief that can come outside of death. As the years went on and she turned into a person I didn’t know or recognize, as the secondary impact started slowly killing my mom, and as everything that I knew of a ‘family’ was disappearing, I reflected many times on how much worse it felt than my dad’s death as a teenager. I remember the moment I actually thought it and my shock that it could be true to me, but it was. Is addiction the worst loss for everyone? No, certainly not. But for me was it? Yes. Death is often the worst loss one will experience, but not always. We can’t know each other’s plights. All we can do is listen to one another, remember that what is true for me in grief may not be true for you, but that we can all still be here for one another.

      3
  3. Melanie  January 23, 2016 at 12:43 pm Reply

    Eleanor, Litsa and Karla,

    Thank you for your posts on grief and loss! I feel that the information you provide different aspects (grief doesn’t happen on a continuum and everyone experiences it differently).
    By chance I found a printed copy of one of your posts on meditation. I am a graduate student completing my internship at Haven for Hope (a homeless Shelter) in San Antonio, TX and was recently given a woman’s grief & loss group. Many of my clients were homeless and are now in the process of completing a substance abuse program and many of them have experienced a loss. I enjoy reading your posts and have adapted them to use in my process group.
    Sorry for the long post, but I guess my point is thank you for sharing your wisdom and I’m glad I found you!

  4. Deborah Franco  October 5, 2015 at 6:19 pm Reply

    I am grieving my mom since March can’t get over it I also suffer from depression please give me some advice sometimes the family just don’t understand

    • Litsa  October 7, 2015 at 8:17 pm Reply

      Oh Deborah, there is no one piece of advice we can give unfortunately. I am so sorry for your loss and that you are feeling misunderstood. This site is our 300+ articles of advice, I guess. This may be a good place to start if you are new to WYG. https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/whats-your-grief-101/

  5. Dory  July 25, 2014 at 3:38 am Reply

    I am new to this site. I lost my husband 9 years ago. I am having a great deal of difficulty dealing with his death. I am under medical care. But there are times, like now when I need a little more. Is this the correct place to obtain more help advice support?
    Sincerely, Dory

    • Eleanor  July 26, 2014 at 10:31 am Reply

      Dory,

      We can offer you support through the blog or direct email if you prefer (whatsyourgrief@gmail.com); but if you think you need a little more in person contact with a counselor or support group then we recommend you look for groups in your community or for a counselor through insurance, EAP, or local hospice.

      Eleanor

  6. Karla Helbert  July 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm Reply

    Eleanor and Litsa– I love this post and have referred several people to it. I was preparing for a presentation on grief and loss for the Autism Society of America focused on this very thing–expanding how we see loss and acknowledging that it is so very different each person. I wanted post here and share with both of you (and DJ and anyone else who might be interested) information on the MISS Foundation’s course in Compassionate Bereavement Care–a 4 day intensive post-graduate certification program that seeks to educate professionals about traumatic grief and death and how to mindfully work with people in grief. This is something we feel very strongly about and are doing our best to change the way bereaved are treated (in all senses of the word) by professionals. Thank you both so much for the work that you do. It is so important. Here’s the link to info on the course: https://certification.missfoundation.org/about-the-course?doing_wp_cron=1405207323.1700170040130615234375

    • Eleanor  July 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm Reply

      Karla,

      I hope your presentation went well. Thank you for all the support you show to us as well as to grievers.

      Eleanor

  7. D.J.Walker  July 9, 2014 at 12:15 am Reply

    I love your Oath. It would have been nice to have this list when my husband of 35 years died 7 years ago. I truly thought I was going crazy. I am a registered nurse and very surprised that in my environment so many people have no understanding of what grieving and loss means to each individual. At year 5 1/2 is when I finally started to see life again after counseling, medication, and the love of my family and close friends. Thank you both for putting together your different posts about the the grieving theories and now your oath.

    • Eleanor  July 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm Reply

      D.J.,

      Thank you for your comment, sorry it’s taken us so long to respond we are a little behind the 8 ball these days. I’m sorry about the death of your husband. I’m glad you were able to find your way through the ‘crazy’ to find better days.

      Litsa and I both spent time working in the hospital with grievers and I too was very surprised how little people know about death and grief. There is really no education around understanding and supporting people at the time of their loved ones death; nurses and doctors kind of just have to rely on their instincts and personal experience. As a nurse I know you already know this unless they have better education in your area. I would love to see this change some day. The support you have at the hospital is so important; e’ve heard that from grievers time and time again. Thank you for doing this work though, I’m sure you are wonderful with your patients and families.

      Anyway, thank you for reading and I’m glad you’ve found a few things that have resonated with you.

      Eleanor

  8. D. Johnson  July 8, 2014 at 11:59 am Reply

    Thank you for working with the homeless. That is truly a situation where losses and grief can keep piling on!

    • Eleanor  July 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm Reply

      Sheesh, you are right. I never realized just how much until we started doing these workshops, but honestly they have taught us so much.

  9. Stephanie Root  July 8, 2014 at 10:58 am Reply

    A huge learning for me in the last couple of years of grieving the loss of my husband is that now I recognize grief and see it all the time in a wide range of circumstances.

    I think it would also be good to have a column on the situations where society expects you to grieve but it is not happening. I did not grieve either of my parents. I am pretty sure I was not surpressing it. In fact, when my mother died it was very emotional for me, but I felt full of her love and just did not miss her. I think I was very ready when it happened. That and the fact that she had never been part of my daily life.

    • Litsa  July 8, 2014 at 11:30 am Reply

      Ah, yes this can be hard, Stephanie. This happens sometimes when a person is ill (especially with a lengthy illness). We sometimes begin our grief in advance of the death, which can (in some cases) reduce or change the grief after the death. This is called Anticipatory Grief and we have a post about it: https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/anticipatory-grief/

      I am not sure if your parents were ill. As you mention, sometimes grief looks very different if someone has not been a part of our lives. In these cases we have had more time to adapt to the distance from that person, so we don’t always experience it as a loss in the same way.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment- I know there are many others who can probably relate.

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