Types of Grief

I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of Pittsburgh women about grief, loss, depression, and the effects these things can have on all of us. Truthfully, grief is everywhere, and today I’d like to make space for some of the most common losses as well as specific types of grief that don’t usually get the attention they deserve.

The death of anyone close to us can shake our worlds, but grief isn’t always so straightforward. What about broken relationships? Loss due to moving or changing jobs? Do we validate people who have lost pets? Unborn children? We grieve expectations when life doesn’t go as planned. We grieve phases of life as we let go of the old and step into the new or unknown (singleness, menopause). We grieve roles as we lose them (parent, spouse, child, sibling). We grieve spiritually as well, especially if there has been wounding in our church. Other types of grief exist, so let me lay them out for you.

Anticipatory grief. This refers to the drawn out period when we know death of a loved one is imminent. A blogger once wrote: “To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.” There’s a heaviness we carry for that extended period of time that we hope will be enough…and then it’s not.

Traumatic grief. We are not only experiencing loss, but are also traumatized by it, such as a violent, unexpected, or deeply painful death. Our fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in. Logic shuts down, and life becomes about survival.

Compounded grief. This occurs when grief piles up over a period of time and negatively affects the way we experience emotions and cope with life. We become numb, irritable, shut down, irrationally in denial, checked out, or even manic. Piles of grief are overwhelming to all our senses.

Ambiguous loss. There are two types of ambiguous loss. The first is when someone is psychologically present but physically absent, such as when a loved one is deployed. They’re present in our minds even though they’re physically somewhere else. Singleness also fits into this category when someone desires to be in a relationship because a person’s mind can be focused on the idea of a future spouse even if the person has not shown up yet. It’s particularly difficult because there is room for hope as long as a person lives, so the only solution is the thing being longed for. The second type of ambiguous loss is when a loved one is physically present but psychologically absent, such as when someone has dementia. They’re bodies are in front of us, but psychologically they’re not. It’s very difficult to have one foot on each side of the line, both present and absent.

Disenfranchised (aka Invalidated) grief. This type encompasses losses that often aren’t seen as being worthy of grief. A non-death loss, like relocation, fits here. Loss of a relationship that is stigmatized fits here too, such the divorce of a partner following an extramarital affair. It’s easier to vilify and dismiss that person than to help a friend grieve the relationship. This category also fits losses where the mechanism of death is stigmatized, such as when a person completes suicide, suffers an overdose death, or loss by abortion. And what about when the person grieving is not recognized as a griever? Co-workers and ex-partners usually fit here. When the people grieving are stigmatized (ie: if they have no outward grief response or have extreme grief responses), the usually fall into this category. See how many people have been falling through the cracks when we don’t make space for them?

Odds are, we’re all grieving something at almost every stage of life. Make space for your mess, make space for the messes of others, and let’s face all of it together.

One Comment on “Types of Grief

  1. I love this blog Jess. Have had my share of grieving over my 64 years of life and have still found it a subject to read articles like this.Holidays are hard but sometimes any day is hard when different things that happen in daily life trigger memories.Even reading this brought a tear to my eyes. Thanks for sharing.

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