Grief is. . .

“Grief is not an illness or a mental health problem. Grief is a natural part of life.” - Julie Kaplow

The best way for me to describe grief is like you’re at a crowded movie theatre. And you’ve bought your tickets for a Rom Com (romantic comedy). And, you’re there and the movie starts and it’s been going for about 15 minutes and then all of the sudden the screen splits in two, and melts, and a horror movie starts in its place.

This isn’t the movie that you showed up for. This isn’t what you bought tickets for.

And everybody else around you is behaving as though this is all perfectly fine. And you’re like, “Wait a minute this isn’t … this isn’t right! This is a horror movie! This is not what I signed up for.” And they’re like, “Meh, it’s just a movie. Just eat the popcorn this is great!” Right?

When you’re inside intense grief like that, you’re no longer watching the same movie everybody else is watching. And because nobody else is watching that movie, they all think everything is fine.

Nothing is fine. Right? And it’s that dissonance between what’s happening in your world versus what’s happening in other people’s world. And the fact that we don’t recognize that everybody is walking around with their own personal movie screen all the time.

Factors that affect grief

Grief is a normal and natural response to a loss. Each person's grief is unique. Our individual grief experience is shaped by a myriad of factors:

  • The relationship we had with the person who died
  • The cause of death
  • Our society and cultural background
  • Our personality and coping style
  • Our past experiences with loss
  • Our support network
  • Our religious or spiritual beliefs and customs

Grief looks different every time

How we grieved for past losses is not a predictor of how we will grieve in the future. Each loss is unique. Each grief experience is unique.

Grief can be present during any time of change . . .

We can grieve for many reasons other than death. We can grieve when we experience job loss, loss of relationship, lost opportunities, loss of heath, loss of safety or security, loss of independence, loss of hope for the future, and many others.

. . . even during our happiest moments

We might grieve our childhood when we graduate from school. Or grieve for our past life when we relocate for a new job. Parents may grieve when a child gets married, ending the years of life with the child at home. Any time we experience a major change in our normal routine can trigger a grief response.

There are different types of grief

There are many different classifications of grief. The ones we most often encounter and least often recognize as grief are:

Ambiguous losses are intangible or uncertain losses that are often not acknowledged. Often there are no rites or rituals for these types of losses.

There are two main types of ambiguous loss:

  1. Someone who is physically absent but psychologically present in your life (such as a child or parent in a divorce, incarceration, deployment, adoption, etc.)
  2. Someone who is physically present and alive but psychologically absent in your life (such as estrangement in a family, breakups or divorce, Alzheimer’s, mental health or other illness, addiction, etc.)

Stigmatized loss often includes feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, or distress. Examples can include losses related to HIV, LGBTQ+, suicide, addictions, infidelity, abortion, infertility, and others.

Disenfranchised grief is defined by grief researcher Ken Doka as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Disenfranchised grief can happen when:

  1. A relationship is not recognized as a loss (an affair, friendship or relationship ending, estrangement where someone has not died but chose to end the relationship, LGBTQ+ partner, etc.)
  2. The loss is not socially recognized or understood (pet loss, abortion, infertility, loss of cultural traditions, etc.)
  3. The griever is not socially recognized as someone who is grieving or people try to protect them by preventing these individuals from their right to grieve (the very old, young children, individuals with a disability, etc.)

How we experience these kinds of losses can impact how we process death-related losses. This page from What's Your Grief reviews the many other types of grief. (Yes, there are even more. . .)