3 Reasons We Might Not Grieve a Big Loss

How to understand and accept abbreviated grief.

Posted Mar 02, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

KEY POINTS

  • Grief can sometimes be less acute or pass more quickly than expected. This is called abbreviated grief.
  • Abbreviated grief may be due to something new taking the place of what was lost, a lack of attachment to what was lost, or because the person grieved in anticipation.
  • Everyone’s experience with loss is unique. Feeling judged can make abbreviated grief more difficult, so it's important to avoid judgment in the grieving process.
Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
Source: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

​​​​​​It is disorienting. You lose something, possibly something or somebody important, but the grief is not what you expect it to look like. It’s abbreviated. Truncated. Maybe you return to feeling “normal” relatively quickly. It feels like you should still be mourning. What’s going on? 

What is Abbreviated Grief?

Some grief, known as abbreviated grief, resolves itself quickly. While it is short-lived, it is a legitimate, genuine form of mourning. Shortened grief can occur for many reasons, but here are some of the most common. 

1. Grief may be abbreviated because something quickly takes the place of the thing lost.

Examples include:

  • A person enters a new romantic relationship quickly following a breakup.
  • A person remarries soon after their spouse dies.
  • A person gets pregnant immediately following a miscarriage.
  • A person gets a new job immediately after leaving their last.
  • A person integrates into a new community after leaving their beloved home.

For some, grief resolves more quickly when the joy of something new replaces what was lost, as in remarriage after a divorce. For others, the addition may add joy without reducing or eliminating the grief. The co-occurrence of the joy in new and pain in the loss can complicate the grief process as the person tries to hold space for both experiences. So while for some a new addition can ameliorate feelings of grief, others will need to make room for both their grief and their excitement. 

Complicating things further, the mourner may feel guilty for adding something new into their life so quickly or begin to feel internal or external pressure to “get over” the original loss because something new and joyful entered their life. Others may see the new job, relationship, or circumstance and decide the mourner no longer feels sad or should no longer feel sad. They may pressure the individual to “move on” particularly in the face of a replacement, (“I mean, come on, you got a new job!”), leading the mourner to feel isolated, guilty, and confused. 

When a replacement or new addition enters the picture, it is important for the mourner to check in with how they feel. Do they feel genuinely ok and are simply moving through grief swiftly? Or do they feel pressure to do so?

2. Grief may be abbreviated because the person felt little attachment to the loss.

Examples include:

  • A person was never close to the parent who died.
  • A person had already drifted apart from a friendship that ended.
  • A person never felt connected to the job they lost.
  • A person left a community that treated them cruelly.

For some, shortened grief feels congruent with the emotional impact of the event. The individual simply didn’t feel immense pain as a result of the loss they suffered. Maybe they weren’t close with the family member that died, hated the job they left, or felt relief at the end of an unhappy marriage.

Despite the internal congruence, the person may feel internal or external pressure to prolong their suffering (or appear to prolong suffer) to align their experience to the expectations of others. Others may judge the mourner’s experience based on how they, the outsiders, view the loss and offer feedback that the mourner is not grieving properly or must be in denial. This feedback can be isolating as well, leading the mourner to feel shame, confusion, and guilt. In this scenario, the individual can check in with themselves and notice what they feel and what they need and stay grounded in that. 

3. Grief may be abbreviated because they already experienced anticipatory grief.

Examples include:

  • An anticipated job layoff.
  • An anticipated breakup.
  • Watching a loved one slowly die of cancer.
  • Watching a loved one’s dementia slowly progress.

Some people experience abbreviated grief because the mourning process commenced before the loss occurred. This is called anticipatory grief. It is not uncommon to see a loss coming and begin to mourn the person’s imminent death, the layoff, the breakup, or the upcoming pain. In fact, some find that their grief is much stronger before the loss than after the loss. Anticipatory grief can be functional by helping the mourners prepare for the loss and anticipate all of its implications. But like other forms of abbreviated grief, the mourner may experience judgment for their perceived lack of mourning after the fact. 

Grief is a deeply personal experience that defies the confines of a particular timeline. People’s reasons for grieving quickly or not at all depend on their individual experience. The biggest issues with abbreviated grief stem from the internal and external judgment that the process can engender. We can remind ourselves not to judge another’s experience and to offer ourselves kindness as we navigate our own emotional experiences, whatever they may be.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock