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5 Signs You Are Grieving an Invisible Loss

What is invisible loss? Here's how everyday grief presents itself.

Key points

  • Acknowledging grief for non-traditional but significant losses is essential for our emotional healing.
  • Labeling prolonged grief as a disorder dismisses common human emotions and hinders the healing process.
  • Invisible losses, such as the loss of a relationship, can deeply impact our mental well-being and daily lives.

When we think about grief, most of us immediately think about tragic losses like death, divorce, or illness—these are traditional losses. Traditional grief is described by the Psychological Association in their Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice as “the primarily emotional or affective process of reacting to the loss of a loved one through death.”

In recent years, the DSM-5 has labeled prolonged grief as a disorder if it takes place longer than what is traditionally expected. Sources indicate that a characteristic feature of prolonged grief disorder is:

“Distressing, disabling yearning that persists a year or more after the loss. Other characteristic symptoms include disbelief and lack of acceptance of the loss, emotional detachment from others since the loss, loneliness, identity disturbance, and sense of meaninglessness.”

Since expressing suffering even within the traditional parameters of grief can be perceived as a disorder and not a common human experience, it is especially difficult to express grief over less tragic—but still valid—forms of loss. One can imagine the obstacles we have to overcome as a society to even consider grief outside of traditionally accepted life tragedies.

Understandably so, this recent focus on grief as a disorder has inadvertently led us away from creating a world of acceptance and validation. But we must push back. It is essential to recognize that expressing sadness is not only socially acceptable but also a crucial step toward healing and growth. According to researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun, the benefits of expressing sadness include:

“A greater appreciation for life or positive reevaluation of life, better relationships, appreciation of newer possibilities, increased personal strength, and a greater sense of spiritual development from coping with a traumatic experience.”

The first step toward a more expansive acceptance of grief is to understand the different forms of loss—so let’s begin to understand what it feels like to experience grief that has yet to be given language.

What Is Invisible Loss?

Invisible loss is a profound yet frequently neglected form of grief that arises when we perceive ourselves to be overlooked, misinterpreted, or discounted by the world. This subtle and persistent emotion defies easy definition, manifesting as pervasive feelings of anxiety, sadness, angst, or restlessness. In essence, it is a type of loss, a result of encounters that alter our self-perception.

The concept of an invisible loss challenges the traditional notion of trauma as something immediately recognizable and tragic. It suggests that individuals might experience significant life-changing events that, at the time, they may perceive as ordinary or unremarkable. These “moments of impact,” as they are referred to, can subtly and gradually alter a person’s self-perception and their understanding of how others view them, often without conscious awareness.

For example, have you ever felt misunderstood during a work meeting and unable to convey your thoughts effectively to your colleagues? This experience can be frustrating and embarrassing, leading to feelings of self-consciousness and avoidance of similar situations in the future. Invisible losses can masquerade as any form of public or private rejection in professional or personal settings.

The chronic dread and anxiety you experience could be a result of unrecognized invisible loss. Consequently, you may not be aware of when or how your survival mechanisms were activated. That old version of yourself ceased to exist when your survival mechanism was triggered, and you were left to endure that flash of shame, abandonment, or rejection. These painful, invisible setbacks, which we term “moments of impact,” occur throughout your life, often without recognition.

Here Are Five Signs That You Are Grieving an Invisible Loss

  1. Stepping Back vs Showing Up: Sometimes, you may find yourself retreating from activities at which you used to excel. Initially, grief from an invisible loss might manifest as anxiety, shame, or embarrassment instead of sadness. These feelings may stem from self-doubt or questioning your abilities and worth. For instance, you might experience nausea before a meeting or heart palpitations during a conversation. These symptoms indicate that you’ve survived a significant moment of impact in the past and have unconsciously remained in survival mode after it subsided.
  2. “Just Fine” Appearance: As we become preoccupied with maintaining the appearance of being “fine,” we tend to suppress our feelings. Without realizing it, we revert to our well-known coping mechanisms and self-soothing techniques to navigate this challenging period of our lives.
  3. The “What Ifs”: When faced with pain or loss, the mind can shift from rational thought to a persistent fear of abandonment and rejection. It’s common for individuals to believe they are experiencing this for the first time, but it’s likely rooted in an early childhood experience of feeling abandoned. This fear stems from the perception that relationships hold the power to cause significant emotional pain.
  4. The People-Pleasing: Perhaps a sense of obligation led you to take on a subservient role, like the person who tried to keep everyone happy, ignoring your needs and desires to be accepted by a group, community, or family. Conforming felt like imprisonment, but you believed you had no choice but to change yourself. Your survivor-based mindset persuaded you that this was the only way to belong.
  5. The Establishing of Threat: In daily scenarios devoid of obvious conflicts or significant threats, you might find yourself unduly concerned about making decisions. For instance, you might worry that expressing your true thoughts could result in negative reactions from others. You act out the worst-case scenario, convincing you that the action you are considering is not going to end well. You don’t even try to say anything; you know better than that.

To uncover your personal invisible losses, begin by reflecting on your daily life. Consider situations where you hold back from sharing your thoughts with others. Examine your routine behavior during family dinners, social events, and one-on-one time with your partner. It’s important to find a trusted friend with whom you feel comfortable sharing your intimate moments.

Moreover, we need to establish safe environments, both at work and in our personal lives, that encourage authenticity. By acknowledging and validating these invisible losses, we can initiate the healing process and leave behind the stagnant state of a metaphorical waiting room. This is the path to a more fulfilling and authentic life.


Stroebe MS, Hansson RO, Schut H, et al., eds.: Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice: Advances in Theory and Intervention. American Psychological Association, 2008.

Prigerson, Holly G., et al. “History and Status of Prolonged Grief Disorder as a Psychiatric Diagnosis.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, vol. 17, no. 1, May 2021, pp. 109–26.

Tedeschi, Richard G., and Lawrence G. Calhoun. “The Post-traumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma.” Journal of Traumatic Stress, vol. 9, no. 3, July 1996, pp. 455–71.

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