Expanding Our Understanding of Loss and Grief

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. In fact, 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 him or her 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 and have it still hold true:

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

Now I am horrible at math and all things related, but I did confirm via this regents prep website (shout out NY public schools) that in a ‘conditional statement‘ when the second condition (the then statement) is 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 so that it’s 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 unatural. 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

Society needs to broaden its understanding of loss and grief. There are many kinds of losses capable of evoking a grief response and, true to grief form, 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 ones 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 other role
Exposure to death or trauma
Loss of home
Marital discord
Being the victim of a crime
Mental Illness
Serious illness
Empty nest
Substance abuse
Life transition

These events, many of them losses themselves, can have a profound impact on one’s emotional wellbeing and may cause individuals to experience grief due to loss of security, hopes, dreams, innocence, independence, health and/or mobility, comfort, community, connection, love, intimacy, immortality, trust, and faith. Grief may also be felt due to shifts in ones self-perception, identity, purpose, or worldview.

I don’t think that one can fully understand grief until they expand their definition to be inclusive of all types of loss. First, because losses need to be dealt with before they start piling on. Next, many of these losses occur as secondary losses after a death so it’s important to understand how dynamic our situations might become when we have multiple losses to reconcile. Furthermore, new losses can drudge up emotions related to old losses, while old losses can magnify and complicate our ability to deal with new losses. And you thought my logic statements were complicated!

Heck, let me complicate things a little further by pointing out that most people aren’t sure which losses are ‘worthy’ or ‘significant’ enough to be grieved resulting in:

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

Taking the time to deal with grief is a luxury for many so when a loss is ambiguous it often doesn’t even get acknowledged. 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.

Litsa and I created an oath a while back for a class we’ve been conducting on loss with individuals experiencing homelessness in Baltimore City. I know, an oath is kind of cheesy. If you prefer to think of it as a contract or a promise to yourself, go for it. The only thing I want is for you to remember that you are entitled to grieve your losses, but it is up to them to identify these losses and to take the time and space you need to deal with them. As we’ve said, those around you may not understand which losses are apt to impact you and to trigger complicated emotions, so if you want support and understanding from others you may need to tell them so. 1979470_452060628260480_592664119_n

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May 19, 2017

15 responses on "Expanding Our Understanding of Loss and Grief"

  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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

  4. 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

    • Dory,

      We can offer you support through the blog or direct email if you prefer ([email protected]); 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.


  5. 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: http://certification.missfoundation.org/about-the-course?doing_wp_cron=1405207323.1700170040130615234375

  6. 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.

    • 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.


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

  8. 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.

    • 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: http://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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