Yearning in Grief and Loss

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I’m a yearner; always have been and always will be. I ache for days and moments that exist only in the past. Childhood moments mostly, the majority of which involve my mother. These memories are particular to me and so I won’t bore you with them. Because yearning in grief is incredibly common, instead I’ll leave a blank space where you can insert memories of your own. 

I don't mean the kind of memories that you fondly recall, though, rather those that involve people and places you long for so much that they make your stomach hurt. The ones that suddenly cross your mind out of nowhere and take your breath away. If you are grieving the death of a loved one, as many of you are, I'm sure you have some idea what I mean.

Yearning is actually one of the most common grief reactions, so I'm surprised how little it's explored in grief literature and research. I'd like to say that What's Your Grief has bucked this trend, but before today we've admittedly only written and 1/2 a post on the topic.  As someone whose heart is constantly clawing and stretching to grab hold of the past, this disappoints me.

In this article we want to start a conversation about yearning in grief and loss. In the interest of learning more about the concept, we invite you to share your experiences in the comments below.

What is yearning?

According to the Oxford Dictionary to 'yearn' is to,

“Have an intense feeling of longing for something, typically something that one has lost or been separated from.”

The Germans have a similar word – 'sehnsucht' - which has been defined as,

“A high degree of intense (recurring), and often painful desire for something, particularly if there is no hope to attain the desired, or when its attainment is uncertain, still far away.

Although it doesn't have an exact English translation, I think 'sehnsucht' comes closest to encapsulating the intense emotional state of yearning experienced after the death of loved one.

What can you yearn for?

O’Connor and Sussman (2014) note that,

“Yearning is an emotional state widely experienced in situations involving loss, focused on a desire for a person, place, or thing that was treasured in the past.”

You can yearn for all sorts of people, places, things, moments, relationships, etc. If it's significant enough to grieve, then it's certainly important enough to yearn for.

How is yearning experienced in grief?

Despite the lack of yearning related research, grief theorists have been conceptualizing yearning as a grief phenomenon since early on. Remember when we wrote a post about the grief theory Bowlby and Parkes proposed back in 1970 called The Four Stages of Grief? Okay silly question, but to recap Bowby and Parkes said that the second "phase" of grief is "yearning and searching".  Here's how we explained this phase in the article:

"In this phase we are acutely aware of the void left in our life from the loss.  The future we imagined is no longer a possibility.  We search for the comfort we used to have from the person we have lost and we try to fill the void of their absence.  We may appear preoccupied with the person.  We continue identifying with the person who has died, looking for constant reminders of them and ways to be close to them."

Bowbly and Parkes laid out their theory over 40 year ago, so how does it stand up to the test of time? With regards to yearning, subsequent studies have indeed confirmed that yearning is a common grief emotion.

In fact, in a 2007 longitudinal study of 223 bereaved individuals, researchers found that among the grief responses disbelief, yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance of the death, acceptance and yearning were the two most common grief responses. Researchers observed that yearning rose until around 4 months postloss, at which point it typically started to decline (Maciejewski, Zhang, Block, & Prigerson, 2007).

Is yearning a good or bad emotion?

That depends.

Grief research and literature often refer to emotions as either positive or negative, and although this can be useful for purposes of defining, testing, categorization, and comparing, such labeling can be misleading for our everyday purposes. Instead, we find it useful to consider most emotions on a continuum where it can be either good or bad, depending on the person experiencing the emotion, how they cope with the emotion, and the overall impact of the emotion on the individual's life.

The potential negative:

In the 2007 study referenced above, yearning was the most commonly endorsed "negative" emotion; Bowlby and Parkes proposed that if a person cannot progress through the 'yearning and searching phase' that they will get stuck trying to fill the void of their loss; and complicated grief researchers note that complicated grief is, "characterized by an intense and prolonged yearning for the deceased."  

We as lay people should take from this that people commonly experience painful and distressing yearning in the early days of grief, and sometimes people experience intensely distressing yearning in an ongoing way and which negatively impacts their day-to-day functioning.

The potential positive:

On the other side of the spectrum, I think many people would say that they don't believe their yearning is completely negative. Some grief researchers agree to a certain extent, noting that yearning can evoke bittersweet positive emotions and provide comfort to people who are grieving by bringing them closer to memories of their loved one.

Although nostalgia is slightly different than yearning, research findings related to nostalgia show it's sometimes used in similarly positive ways. We discussed these research findings in a past article:

"A team at Southampton found that nostalgia was a very common experience with 80% of their 172 participants stating they experience nostalgia at least once a week and 42% indicating they experience it at least three or four times a week. Most interesting to us though is the finding that one of the most common triggers of nostalgia is negative affect. Which suggests that we are apt to access memories of a happier times in an attempt to counteract negative feelings like fear and anxiety in the present.

Also, their findings support the idea that nostalgia has the capacity to generate positive affect, bolster social bonds, and increase positive self-regard. So, when a social situation is one that is apt to trigger anxiety or fear, nostalgia about relationships from the past can help boost confidence in ones ability to interact, open up, and bond with others."

Yearning and nostalgia are so similar in nature I believe one could hypothesize that (1) there could be overlap in how yearning and nostalgia are used to as coping tools or (2) grieving people may believe they are experiencing yearning when they are actually engaging in nostalgia to cope with negative grief emotion.

Final words...

Before writing this article, I discussed the topic of yearning with WYG co-founder, Litsa. We both agreed that we personally have positive feelings towards our grief-realted yearning.  Years after our losses, we are able to see how yearning has been, and continues to be, both useful and comforting.

Might someone with a more recent loss disagree?  Heck yes.  So we'll leave you with these final words. When conceptualizing yearning, it's important to acknowledge that it's a common experience. It's also important to understand that your feelings towards yearning may be ambivalent and/or change over time.  Grief is about the loss of something wonderful and so yearning, and many other grief-related experiences, are inherently a mix of happy, sad, good, and bad.


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30 Comments on "Yearning in Grief and Loss"

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  1. emma  August 5, 2023 at 2:10 pm Reply

    I am experiencing yearning after the loss of a relationship, which always has notes of death associated with it, namely because that person is often gone…sometimes never to be seen or held again. the grief of loss wether it be in death or in relationship ends feels entirely the same. I enjoyed reading this article because I learning about how normal these feeling are, only having just really isolated my feelings. i want to know how to relax myself around these painful feelings, other than being with the sensations and waiting for them to subside…..which i dont have time to do all the time, meeting my frustration at my inability to trust my instincts might be a better solution. Id like to cultivate the yearning i see for a lost ‘other’ into a yearning for the lost “me”… that might do the trick!

  2. Terry  July 20, 2020 at 11:54 am Reply

    I have noticed (after many losses) that there is a Hierarchy of Grief (I call it) in relation to yearning.

    If the loss is very detrimental to the life of the living person, the yearning occurs sharply. This is because the person needs the deceased in their life to sort problems out as they always did. But if their life is not worse since the death, then they can cope and so will not yearn.

    I noticed this with my recent illness where 8 have had extreme yearning for my adult daughter. She died 6.5 years ago and I had dealt with the grief quite well … until now. I hadn’t been ill before and she always brought me food and phoned me or saw me daily. So I wouldn’t have noticed that particular loss until now. It has really hit me and brought home about my future care needs as I become elderly and that she really won’t be there for me and I really will have no one. So I think the yearning comes when our life-level is below that which was achieved when the deceased was in our lives. We associate their presence with greater happiness whether or not this is a truth. We may have been wealthier but not because that was caused by the deceased but we still associate that with them for example. In this lies possible clues to easing our pain by lifting up our life-level.

  3. Caranne  December 6, 2019 at 8:39 pm Reply

    Thanks for this article, it’s very good.

    I yearn for my husband who died three and a half years ago. We were always so close from the day we met. It just felt natural, right, good. He died suddenly from cancer only diagnosed three weeks earlier. I was devastated. God is amazingly good to me and I’ve had constant support from church, family, friends and neighbours. I’ve travelled and been involved in missions and training teachers overseas. I have a deeply fulfilling life, speaking, playing music, helping others. But I think I will always yearn for my husband.

    To me, yearning is very different from nostalgia. It is more painful and sometimes leaves me at the end of myself. I accept what happened and I try to live a peaceful yet active life. But I yearn for the one who was the ‘other half’ of me. No matter how exciting or fulfilling my life is – and it is – I still long to have his presence, to share it all with him, to love and be loved by him. Little things can bring back these longings when I least expect it. They no longer debilitate me, I can stay focussed, but they make my heart ache and they bring me to tears. I may go for weeks without it happening but then it gets me again. I’m back to my old self again when I’m with other loved ones and mostly when I’m by myself. But I will always love him and though I know he can’t be here I will miss him for the rest of my life. He was so special. Oh sure we squabbled once in a while, especially in the early years of our marriage, but we always understood each other and we worked together as a team. I’ve become a ’single’ person again so I’m not stuck, at least I don’t think I am. Others tell me I’m an inspiration to them. But I yearn for him so much sometimes.

    Some people say I should enjoy my memories but while I can do that occasionally in a nostalgic way, more of my memories are painful because they remind me of what I’m missing. Grief is a difficult journey.

  4. Camille  May 3, 2019 at 6:34 pm Reply

    It has been three months since my dad died. I was 19 (20 now). He was my dad, best friend, someone who understood me most in the world…. he was divorced and died alone in his apartment of the flu. I had no idea he was so sick with it.
    Already the banks have taken everything from the apartment to the car. Its already rented out. I miss talking with him. Watching tv and movies with him. Rolling my eyes as he played music videos and insisted I sing along. I miss cooking with him.
    I yearn for all those things so badly.
    I feel like id trade anything for one more night spent with him. To get the chance to say goodbye. To talk to him on the phone and share our days. I don’t know how to get past that. I want my dad back- I want my music, joy, and house back. Loosing a person is often loosing a home and family as well.

    He was such a good man. He didn’t deserve this.

  5. Helen  January 28, 2019 at 2:10 am Reply

    My beautiful son Michal was killed by txtg driver in 2009. My husband succumbed to the grief two years later. I and my eldest son and daughter nursed my husband their dad at home. It is so difficult to deal with.
    Mike was 41 and had a son and daughter 9 and 4. A terrible toxic relationship with his estranged wife resulted in me not getting to know them until this past year.
    When I see my grandson I can see my son also in different ways. It’s lovely – but I am then deep in the grief of my son. Up it comes, almost as bad as when it first happened. It’s taking me all my strength to gentle myself down so I can cope. My grandson would not know. He is delightful and he is his own person.
    I don’t believe we parents ‘get over’ our children’s deaths ever.
    Some days are diamonds, some days are stone are the best lyrics for me.
    God bless you all

  6. Rachel  January 12, 2019 at 6:27 pm Reply

    I yearn for my boyfriend of 34 years ago, he left for a life in the USA. He didn’t say goodbye, I remained a friend of his sisters. Married someone I didn’t particularly love had two children with him, marriage ended. I married again to a kind man I love but am not in love with. But to this day I miss my boyfriend. A year after he left he write and basically prooosed, I write back yes. Then no more contact, why didn’t I follow up on it I don’t know., maybe he never got the letter. I got a job in US and hoped in time we might get in contact but it didn’t work out and I was back in the UK. No one could be like him. I went to his sisters funeral today he was there, he didn’t see me. He has a family and wife of his own. I listened to his lovely voice as he gave a bible reading. My heart is so broken why didn’t he chose me, why didn’t I have his children. All these years I missed him so. I’m getting old and from time to time I read that letter he sent me. I will love him till the day I Die.

  7. Sucheta Dasgupta  June 18, 2018 at 11:55 am Reply

    My dad loved me most in the world. I left home to prove myself to him 21 years ago. I was proud of him, never let him down. He doesn’t know. I stopped talking to him about our conflicts and about any difficulties. I could meet him only once a year or once every two years. I was struggling to be foolproof, the noun he was the verb for. He was my sage. Just when I was ready to share myself with him and him with my world, he died. He had been lonely and had neglected himself. My dad had grown so handsome over the years. He was a masculist in the best sense of the term but loved flowers and soft toys. Noticed this only later. He had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen, and the most beautiful, long-toed, perfectly shaped feet. Only when he was dying did I learn to read, understand his feelings, how he expressed them, that what I mostly thought was his anger was just sadness. Earlier, I was too distracted by my own quest and other things. I yearn for the relationship I could have had with him but never did.

  8. Jodi  May 30, 2018 at 1:50 am Reply

    I lost my boyfriend of 3 years to sepsis (blood infection) from heroin drug use. I yearn for him everyday. This is the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced! ?

  9. Jodi  May 30, 2018 at 1:50 am Reply

    I lost my boyfriend of 3 years to sepsis (blood infection) from heroin drug use. I yearn for him everyday. This is the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced! ?

  10. Michelle  May 2, 2017 at 6:11 pm Reply

    I lost my 22 year old son on this past thanksgiving day. I yearn to have him back everyday. It’s been just over 5 months and I mentally can’t accept that he is never coming back. Everyday pain and every minute of everyday wanting him back.

  11. Alexa  April 30, 2017 at 8:15 pm Reply

    Oh, thank you … Yearning. Yes. I moved, eight months ago, far from home (across the country) with a new beloved … and since I’ve been here, two of my dearest loves back home died. I was staggered with shock — truly frozen — for five months, with grief and with a desperate yearning to go home. The panic was bone-deep. I still feel that I have one foot here, one foot back at home … and some part of me will always pine for the place I lived in for my entire life until eight months ago.

    We can’t help but yearn for who and what has passed. The heart holds close every wisp of love that we have shared, every place of beauty we’ve known, every bond that has been close.

    It all makes me think that there is (yet another) form of grief and mourning that we don’t speak of or generally acknowledge: homesickness. It can be a plague … and there are few longings more potent than the longing for home …

    Just beginning to emerge from this harrowing state now, with the advent of Spring. Even so, my thoughts, prayers, and impulses still hanker for home.

    Yes, we yearn. Our hearts can’t help it.

  12. Nancy Mackey  April 25, 2017 at 7:52 pm Reply

    I have always had an emtiness inside of me from childhood. Now I know that it is: YEARNING. I never knew before. I have often felt sad and inexcuseable feelings. Now I know that it is yearning. I am longing for things from long ago, times gone by, people no longer. Thank you for clarifying. It helps to put a name on it. I feel like a downer in groups—like I should be somewhere else. That I dont fit in. But I have lost lots of people that I treasured. They are not coming back. Their voices are no longer heard. I appreciate this article.

  13. Charissa  April 23, 2017 at 3:01 am Reply

    Thanks for the outstanding advice, it really is useful.

  14. Corrina Shilling  April 18, 2017 at 9:10 pm Reply

    My 21 year old son was killed in an accident 15 months ago, the pain,the wanting him back. I haven’t even got to missing him yet I’m still yearning and wanting him back, everyday I wake in trauma the realisation everyday, it’s wanting something so badly but not allowed to have it, it’s a living nightmare.

    • Terry  July 20, 2020 at 12:07 pm Reply

      I’m so sorry to hear this. I hope you are managing the pain better these days and have been able to create a new existence for yourself xx

  15. Dianne  March 21, 2017 at 8:01 am Reply

    Just lost my Mother In law (36yrs) and my own Mom 18 days apart. Sad enough to be deeply grieving over the loss of both our Mothers, on top of that we have one particular toxic person we are dealing with and an already existing anxiety problem that my husband was in the process of dealing with, good lord above help me. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the extreme anxiety that this person has unescapably caused, it is getting a little better but I am constantly in fear that simple little things can cause another major flare up…..

  16. Karen DeBraal  March 19, 2017 at 7:52 pm Reply

    My little brother died over 30 years ago. I yearn for his company. Still. It does not feel negative or obsessive to me. I miss him. I know he won’t be coming back. For me, this yearning is his presence in my heart. And it is OK.

  17. AloneTogether  March 17, 2017 at 2:13 pm Reply

    I have been experiencing this in the last month. Right now, with huge intensity. It’s been slightly over three months since my husband passed away. Certain things trigger it, like when I go for a walk during my lunch, I pass by places that we used to hang out when we were dating. I usually am in a hurry to go home because I knew my husband was going to be there and we would talk for a bit, play video games or play an instrument to make up a song. Now, I don’t care what time I get “home”. I miss our long walks, our adventures, our private jokes, even our intimacy (which I haven’t told anyone since that was just between him and I). I honestly can’t picture a future since he’s not going to be there.

  18. Rhyl  March 17, 2017 at 3:24 am Reply

    There is a word in Brazilian that captures this yearning and longing also “SAUDADE”. It is definitely a big part of grieving my daughter.

  19. Kerry  March 16, 2017 at 10:53 pm Reply

    Thank you for putting a name to what I’ve been feeling. It’s been a little over a year since my dad has passed and I don’t feel that much “better.” I remember that awful yearning pain when he first passed and yelling “Where are you?” In the days that followed I wanted desperately to recover the voicemail message that was deleted that he had left just a mere few days before. Just to hear his voice. Just to see him one more time. That’s what my yearning looks like. Last night, I had a hard time falling asleep because lying there I was trying so hard to draw up images of what my childhood home looked like. Every room. Every nook and cranny. I even thought about knocking on the new owner’s door to ask if I could come inside just to see the place that held so many happy memories where life seemed right and dad was alive. I probably won’t do it. The “new” owner has been living there since 1995. Anyway, I’m glad that I have a name for one of the many things I’ve been feeling that are part of my grief experience and find comfort that this is a common experience. Sometimes I feel like a weak person because of all this yearning, but I know that’s not true. Thank you.

  20. Robin  March 16, 2017 at 3:23 pm Reply

    Very good thoughts here. I have felt this way a lot but not put a label to it. I am grieving three babies lost to miscarriage in the past 2 years. I am definitely yearning for that newborn baby in my arms that will never be again.

  21. Michael  March 15, 2017 at 9:13 am Reply

    It is a beautiful place that you send me to with your post .All I seem to need after my daughter Ashley died of a fentanyl overdose is to see we are truley not alone .
    I yearn for her so much everyday .She was so much of our lives .That is what I bevieve we yearn for ..Just that next moment of life with her .That we know we can never have . Thank you all for the post that are here .This sight gives me hope to go
    on with out Ashley .She moved me further and now you all can .But I should say closer.

    • Melissa  May 25, 2017 at 12:27 am Reply

      My daughter died March 4 2017 of fentanyl overdose. I am overwhelmed with yearning. They let me hold her when they took her off life support until her heart stopped. I ache for her. You post touched my heart. This is the worst pain in the world.

      • Pamela  November 19, 2017 at 7:32 am

        I yearn for my Son who to died of OD now over 4 year’s ago and I to held my only Child while I waited for his last breath. I Miss him so much more and more every single day! I also know the pain that never goes away in your Heart, that no Mom should ever ever feel! No it’s not like at the beginning when you just think you’re about to Explode but still it never goes away! I to am Thankful I finally found this site because I was so alone with no one that wanted to talk to me. I’m thankful for helping at least understand my feelings and yes so many things have been very negative ways of coping! I know that I have the PTSD kind of Grief but only because of this site and you wonderful people along with Other’s that post under each article! I was a Mom then I was so lost without a Child! I know I will always be a Mom but I Miss My Sweet Beautiful Angel My Son so very much it hurts and for me it gets worse just missing him! At least I’m finally out of bed and not just laying Praying for death! So, if Missing him is Yearning, I yearn every day! I’m sure I will the rest of my life and my Heart just Breaks to know that some of you are in the early stages when it’s so unbearable that you just know you will never be able to even stand it one more minute and I didn’t either but here I am! Thank You All ???✝?❤

  22. withandwithoutblog  March 14, 2017 at 7:39 pm Reply

    I am yearner! I try to “earn my yearn” by doing something productive with it, like email one of my mom’s old friends to keep in touch, something like that which might have a positive outcome. Recently by emailing with her college bestie I got some great stories I had never heard. The yearning is certainly a positive/negative force that I try to balance. Some of that is beyond my control of course. Sometimes I try to just yearn as hard as I can for a limited amount of time and then “move on” with my day.
    I do agree that the more recent the loss, the harsher and more painful the yearning is, and I hope that as the loss grows more distant the yearning will soften into something sweeter.

    • Tamra Brock  March 15, 2017 at 9:57 am Reply

      Its the day before my mother passed away three years ago. I am feeling very anxious and my heart aches. Ever since her passing my heart has physically hurt. Each and everyday. I went to the doctor. I told him all about my chest pain and how my heart hurts. Since I suffer from depression he blew it off by saying oh your probably anxious for I also suffer from anxiety. I read your article and let me tell you. YES I YEARN. I long for the past when mother was in it. I constantly yearn I don’t believe I can ever stop. It’s a constant struggle each day. I cannot stop the gnawing in my heart. I take antidepressants and I still have the hurt in my heart. Nobody can understand this. Not my psychiatrist and not my primary doctor. I also can feel the anxiety when I know her birthday is coming up and when holidays are near. I can’t sleep I just am in a state of panic. There isn’t any Medication that helps me. It’s a yearning to want her again. Plain and simple. I yearn and I have never known that this was okay or there was a word for it, or that it goes hand and hand with grief. It’s been three years tomorrow since my mom passed away but yet it feels like it’s been a lifetime.

      • Renay  October 3, 2017 at 10:44 am

        Your not crazy I know that pain all to well in my heart.

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