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Understanding Grief: It's Not What You Think

Why are a partner’s death, the loss of a pet, or the ability to knit similar?

Key points

  • Losses can create holes in our identity.
  • We don't grieve the loss of a person, ability, or object, but rather the emotion it engendered in us.
  • Try different activities. Find something that arises an emotion similar to the one you no longer experience.
Source: dreamstime / Shutterstock
Why we grieve.
Source: dreamstime / Shutterstock

We mistakenly believe there is a grief hierarchy, with the intensity of loss more legitimate for some events than others. The criteria are usually based on social norms. [1] We don’t question a person’s all-consuming grief over the loss of a life-long partner.

But we may find excessively mourning the death of a Golden Retriever questionable and endlessly grieving a broken vase unfathomable.

Are we missing something in our moralizing that prevents us from seeing that these examples and thousands of others are more similar than dissimilar? Absolutely. Scratch the surface of any significant loss, and you’ll find two unifying features: their importance to one’s identity and the absence of a missing emotion.


How we view ourselves—our identity—is based on an amalgam of experiences, values, abilities, and expectations. [2] When a meaningful part of your life is lost, self-perceptions and your place in the world may change.

It’s irrelevant if the loss was a life-long partner, the daily jog for someone who has run for 40 years now shuffling because of deteriorating joints, encroaching deafness for someone who played the cello her entire life, the gradual memory loss of a writer who spent his days in front on a computer crafting short stories, or the avid knitter whose fingers are crippled by arthritis.

Significant losses produce holes in a person’s identity.[3] For example, when I could no longer fly fish alone in the wilderness, my family and friends didn’t understand why I became despondent.[4]

“After all,” the consoling began, “look at everything you still can do.” Statements that start with “but look” rarely comfort anyone who loses something significant in defining their life.[5]

Yes, I was still a husband, a father, a university professor, and a writer, but the overriding identity umbrella of “Stan Goldberg, wilderness flyfisher,” was gone. I became “Stan Goldberg, an ex-wilderness flyfisher.”

Losses such as these—ones that change identity—are rarely confined to changes in self-perception. Instead, they also affect behavior.[6] Some of these may be “unintended consequences” of the loss.

For example, I love taking my granddaughter to fish in a peaceful lake using worms. Although I try to be encouraging when she attempts to get her line into the water, my enthusiasm would be different if I anticipated introducing her to my favorite spot.

Loss of Emotion

When my father died, well-meaning, compassionate friends said to my mother that with enough time, she would get over the loss of my father, someone with whom she had spent almost every day since they were married. It was advice commonly given and found in many counseling approaches, where the “time heals” mantra is repeated.[7] My mother’s response was prophetic: “There isn’t enough time in the universe for me to get over his death.”

We think loss is tied to something tangible: a husband, a skill, an object, etc. Yes, the loss of these can result in grief—but not always. A wife most likely won’t miss an abusive husband.

A factory worker who hated his repetitive job might be joyful that a stroke removed him from a despicable job. And the farmer who hated tending her cows won’t miss the responsibility of milking them at 4 a.m. if the herd met fatal consequences from foot-and-mouth disease.

So, what creates grief associated with a change in identity? What ties the loss so intensely to us that we are immobilized when we think about its absence? The loss of the emotion it generated. We get enjoyment and fulfillment not from the thing, activity, or person itself but from the emotions it once stirred in us.

Let’s take my fly fishing example. It was the most enjoyable activity I ever did. When my cancer treatments and a chronic sleep disorder prevented me from continuing that pursuit, I mourned the activity’s loss as if it were a loved one who died.

My head knew that I was fortunate that one group of medications was containing the cancer and another was allowing me to sleep. But my heart still longed to be in the remotest ripples of the McCloud River, spending hours alone, just waiting for a fish to rise.

I eventually realized it wasn’t the act of fishing in the middle of a pristine river that I missed; it was the serenity I felt being there. I sought other activities that could engender “serenity” or something similar when I realized that.

I found it in crafting and playing with wooden flutes. Was it the same? Not quite, but close enough to partially fill that pothole.

Remedies for Grief

If you regret the loss of something important, seek counseling if you believe talk therapy is appropriate for you.[8] But there is an alternative method: Experiment as a scientist would do by engaging in activities that can generate an emotion similar to the one you no longer experience because of the loss. Once you have identified the emotion, try activities that may cause similar emotional responses.

You might be surprised that pleasure can be found in very different activities since the brain’s physiology can produce the emotion—stability, for example—whether it comes from an unchanging social environment, an orderly home, or the interaction of supportive people.[9]


There shouldn’t be any place for righteous indignation when assessing grief and loss, whether it comes from or is directed against you. Loss is loss is loss.

Mourn what you lost, understand its place in your identity and emotional fulfillment, and start a search to fill the hole. If you are open to experimentation, you may be surprised that the feeling your partner engendered in you returns by weeding the garden.


[1] Robson P, Walter T. Hierarchies of loss: a critique of disenfranchised grief. Omega (Westport). 2012-2013;66(2):97-119. doi: 10.2190/om.66.2.a. PMID: 23472320.

[2] Fearon, J. D. (1999). What Is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)? California: Stanford University.

[3] Peter J. Burke, “Identity Change,” Social Psychology QuarterlyVol. 69, No. 1 (Mar., 2006), pp. 81-96, American Sociological Association

[4] Stan Goldberg, “Welcome to Kauai. What’s that Strange Stick in Your Hand? Saltwater Fly Fishing, December, 1999

[5] Stan Goldberg, Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Alert Into Your 90s and Beyond (Lanham, MA: Roman & Littlefied, 2023)

[6] Jack D. Simons, “From Identity to Enaction: Identity Behavior Theory,” Front. Psychol., 24 August 2021

Volume 12 - 2021 |

[7] Titlestad KB, Dyregrov K. Does 'Time Heal all Wounds?' The Prevalence and Predictors of Prolonged Grief Among Drug-Death Bereaved Family Members: A Cross-Sectional Study. Omega (Westport). 2022 Apr 28:302228221098584. doi: 10.1177/00302228221098584. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35482973.

[8] Newsom C, Schut H, Stroebe MS, Wilson S, Birrell J, Moerbeek M, Eisma MC. Effectiveness of bereavement counselling through a community-based organization: A naturalistic, controlled trial. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2017 Nov;24(6):O1512-O1523. doi: 10.1002/cpp.2113. Epub 2017 Aug 29. PMID: 28850762; PMCID: PMC5763344.

[9] Šimić G, Tkalčić M, Vukić V, Mulc D, Španić E, Šagud M, Olucha-Bordonau FE, Vukšić M, R Hof P. Understanding Emotions: Origins and Roles of the Amygdala. Biomolecules. 2021 May 31;11(6):823. doi: 10.3390/biom11060823. PMID: 34072960; PMCID: PMC8228195.

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