Four Unexpected Ways We Experience Grief
And why it’s important that we call them grief.
Posted Apr 17, 2019
The word grief has come to be understood solely as a reaction to a death. But that narrow understanding fails to encompass the range of human experiences that create and trigger grief. Here are four types of grief that we experience which have nothing to do with death:
1. Loss of identity: A lost role or affiliation.
- A person going through a divorce who feels the loss of no longer being a “spouse.”
- A breast cancer survivor who grieves the lost sense of femininity after a double mastectomy.
- An empty nester who mourns the lost identity of parenthood in its most direct form.
- A person who loses their job or switches careers grieves a lost identity.
- Someone who leaves a religious group feels the loss of affiliation and community.
Whenever a person loses a primary identity, they mourn a lost sense of self. They’re tasked with grieving who they thought they were and eventually creating a new story that integrates the loss into their personal narrative. In some instances, the identity feels stolen, as in the cases of the person who feels blindsided by divorce and the breast cancer survivor. For those individuals, the grief may feel compounded by the lack of control they had in the decision. Others choose to shed an identity, as in the case of switching careers or leaving a religious community. Though this may sound easier, those individuals may feel their grief compounded by the ambivalence of choosing to leave something they will also mourn. They may feel less entitled to their grief and lost sense of self, because the decision was self-imposed.
2. Loss of safety: The lost sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- Survivors of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma who struggle to feel safe in everyday life
- Families experiencing eviction and housing instability who feel unprotected and unstable
- Children of divorce who grieve the loss of safety in the “intact” family (though they may not articulate it this way)
- Members of a community who encountered violence and feel destabilized and unsafe
- A person discovering their partner’s romantic infidelity who may feel emotionally unsafe in the relationship
On a basic level, we expect to feel safe in our homes, our communities, and our relationships. The lost sense of safety, be it physical (after a break-in) or emotional (after an affair), can make a person’s world feel distinctly unsafe. Symptoms of lost safety may include a sense of hypervigilance even in the absence of danger or numbness. For many, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, numbness and hypervigilance occur intermittently. For survivors of trauma, violence, and instability, that feeling of internal safety may feel hard to restore, even if circumstances stabilize. In addition to healing from the trauma, the individual is tasked with grieving the lost sense of safety and learning to rebuild it.
3. Loss of autonomy: The lost ability to manage one’s own life and affairs.
- A person with a degenerative illness who grieves the loss of physical or cognitive abilities
- An older adult no longer able to care for themselves who grieves their decline (this may also tie to a lost sense of identity as a contributing member of society)
- A person experiencing a financial setback who feels a lost sense of autonomy as they rely on others’ help
This type of grief cuts to the core of every person’s need to manage their body and their life. Loss of autonomy triggers grief over the lost sense of control and the struggle to maintain a sense of self. In cases of illness and disability, lost autonomy (and often lost identity) marks every step they take. New forms of decline invite grief for their lost independence and ability to function. A person suffering from a profound financial setback may experience this same feeling of loss, manifested as feeling their options shrinking, along with a sense of failure or despair. They are tasked with grieving those losses and reconceptualizing who they are in the face of these limitations.
4. Loss of dreams or expectations: Dealing with hopes and dreams going unfulfilled.
- A person or couple who struggle with infertility
- An overachieving student who struggles to find their place in “real world”
- A person whose career trajectory does not reflect their expectations
- A person whose community took a political turn in an unwanted direction
This type of grief is characterized by a deep sense of disorientation. Most of us walk around with a vision of how our lives will play out and how we expect the world to operate. When life events violate our expectations, a person can experience a deep sense of grief and unfairness. An individual or couple struggling to conceive and the student who struggles to make their way in the world may experience a sense of failure that compounds the grief process. They may find themselves comparing their process and outcomes to others. Unexpected political shifts can lead to a lost sense of the assumptive reality and the sense of stability from believing they understand how the world operates.
Restoring the word "grief" to its proper place
Loss of identity, safety, autonomy, and expectations are all losses the warrant a sense of grief. Grief and mourning as a framework can help each of us work through a moment or chapter of chaos with the gentleness we give a mourner. The mourner receives compassion and is entitled to anger, sadness, numbness, disorientation, and nonlinear healing. The word grief both accurately characterizes the internal reality of the process and legitimizes and concretizes the process to ourselves and others.
While many experience the setbacks and tragedies of life with grief and mourning, many feel they are not entitled to the word.
So I give you permission.
You may mourn.
Your loss is real.
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