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Grieving When No One Has Died

Grief is not exclusive to death; other losses occur more often throughout life.

Key points

  • Loss can be related to death, but also loss occurs around situations which do not involve death.
  • Non-death losses may have tangible or intangible aspects to these experiences.
  • Broadening our understanding of grief and bereavement can help create more inclusive and compassionate communities.

Many of us struggle to use the language of loss and grief when nobody has died. Yet, loss is fundamentally any experience where it is not possible to return to life as it once was; loss occurs when there is a permanent change in our circumstances or perceptions, particularly after seismic life events.1

Loss can be related to death, but loss also occurs around painful or disorienting experiences which do not involve death. In the book Non-Death Loss: Context and Clinical Implications, Darcy Harris outlines how people can experience genuine grief over tangible or intangible losses.2Tangible losses have a physical, visible, or more material quality in nature. These may include the loss of a job, the loss of a home, or a loss of physical functioning due to declining health.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Other losses are more psychological, symbolic, or abstract in nature. A loss of identity, autonomy, trust in the world, dreams or hopes for the future, and a loss of personal meaning are intangible losses. The invisible nature of these losses makes these types of experiences difficult to express. Harris outlines how our materialistic society has a predisposition to minimize or not recognize experiences that do not have a physical or obvious aspect to them.

Non-death losses are commonly misunderstood by others, and our pain is often unrecognized by those around us. Yet, Harris outlines how a difficult process of adjustment can become less painful and isolating when we collectively acknowledge grief in its various manifestations. Instead of isolating people, and forcing them to struggle with these disorienting experiences alone, we can foster more compassionate communities that create spaces for connection, support, and meaning during uncertain times.

When we broaden our definition of what constitutes a loss experience, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world. Bereavement can be defined as a state in which we experience a deprivation from a subjectively valued thing, person, object, experience, or relationship. This definition, focusing on the subjective personal experience, highlights how only the person affected by a loss can determine its significance and impact.

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

The truth is that non-death losses occur much more frequently in everyday life, and represent how our lives often revolve around change, uncertainty, and transition. Depending on our lived experience, values, and personal situations, non-death-related losses can be less painful, equally painful, or even more painful than a death-related loss. Different losses, experienced at different times in our lives, affect us in different ways.

Comparing our grief in contrast to other people is not helpful, as there is no right way to grieve, and grief is the natural response to loss and bereavement.3 Grieving is ultimately a process in which we learn to navigate an unfamiliar world after a shattering life event.4

While grief and loss are universal experiences, grief remains a highly unique experience for every person. Grief is about finding yourself in a time of suffering and figuring out a way to make sense of your life when nothing makes sense. This experience will be different for everyone and demonstrates how loss is ultimately whatever a person says it is.


1. Shelvock, M., Kinsella, E., & Harris, D. (2022). Beyond the corporatization of death systems: Towards green death practices. Ilness, Crisis, and Loss, 30(4), 640–658.

2. Harris, D. (2020). Non-death loss and grief: Context and clinical implications. Routledge.

3. Shelvock, M. (2022). There is no step-by-step formula for grief. Psychology Today.

4. Shelvock, M. (2022). Relearning the world through grief. Psychology Today.

More from Mark Shelvock RP(Q), CT, MACP, MA
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