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Is Death the Only Loss We Grieve?

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Different Types of Loss

I teach a death and dying course at a university....which I promise isn't quite as scary as it sounds! On the first day, I ask students to identify various types of loss, and they quickly select death as the most common, followed by divorce. When I ask them to dive deeper, they begin to consider other losses like:

  • unemployment

  • miscarriage

  • loss of a friendship or relationship

  • infertility

  • loss of a dream or goal

  • chronic illness

  • physical injury or amputation

  • military deployment or relocation

  • mental illness

  • traumatic brain injury

  • incarceration

  • abuse and neglect

  • addiction and recovery

  • and MANY more.

That's a lot of loss, and this list isn't even close to being comprehensive. It also doesn't include our recent losses due to the global pandemic.

Along with numerous deaths caused by COVID-19, many among us are affected by its non-death losses including isolation, job layoffs, loss of ceremonial rituals such as weddings, graduations, funerals, and baby showers, loss of financial security, threats to our physical health and safety, loss of normalcy….......

The list goes on….....and on….....

Invisible Losses from “Happy” Life Events

It's easy to understand that adverse life events like death, pandemic, divorce, and illness result in grief, but what about the more positive ones?

We don’t often talk about it, but even joyful times or meaningful life transitions can cause us to experience feelings of loss. Consider a teenager graduating high school or leaving home for college, a family welcoming a new baby, an adolescent changing schools, a person retiring after 40 years of a successful career, a child being adopted into a family, or even a single person getting married.

While these scenarios produce hopeful opportunities, they can also be garnished with a residue of grief. Unfortunately, we are taught that some life events are “happy” while others are “sad,” and we usually don't leave much wiggle room for any emotion between the two.

So, we tend to be silent or feel guilty about expressing our grief following positive life events. Our undertones of guilt are often evidenced by statements dismissing our grief like, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way but….

Comparative Suffering

We also frequently categorize and compare our losses. This is known as comparative suffering, and it happens when we dismiss our own losses because we believe others "have it worse." It can also occur in reverse- when we fail to extend empathy to our friends because we believe our loss is/was more significant than theirs.

"Comparative suffering corrodes compassion and connection."- Brené Brown

Here's what comparative suffering looks like...

We know people who are grieving the deaths of family members and friends caused by the pandemic, so we may hesitate to express our disappointment and sadness (or anger) that our baby shower was canceled after years of struggling with infertility or that our son, who persevered in spite of significant learning challenges, couldn’t participate in his high school commencement.

Yet, these are still experiences of loss and grief.

Most of us walk around silently carrying a few burdens of loss, whether we discuss them or not. And, many of us live with compounded loss- feeling the grief from multiple (non-death and death) losses at the same time.

Remember, loss is simply a result of love. And, grief is an expression of that love.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped comparing our grief and instead felt free to openly share our stories of loss and love while extending ourselves and others empathy, grace, and compassion?

I suppose I started this blog to find out…:)

Do We All Experience Grief the Same?

Comparative suffering isn't effective because no two people experience grief in the same way. And, our reactions to loss are influenced by many factors (which I’ll discuss in a future post) including the attachment and connection we felt toward that which has been suddenly removed or significantly changed.

This is why some circumstances might not result in grief for you, but they will result in grief for your family member or friend.

Here’s an example….

I didn’t experience personal grief when my friend Amy's son graduated high school and left for college. I certainly felt and displayed empathy because I knew Amy would miss her son tremendously while he was away. But, since I didn’t share the same emotional attachment to her son, I didn’t share the same grief.

However, when I moved my own daughter into her dorm room the following year and headed across campus to fly back home without her, I quickly found myself in a deep puddle of grief (and tears). And, its undercurrent remained while I learned to navigate my new life as an empty-nester.

“I Know Exactly How You Feel.”

It's important to note that while Amy and I experienced a very similar loss event (our children leaving for college), the resulting grief process was different for each of us. Our shared losses placed us in a unique position to support one another, but we also understood that neither felt the same way. My relationship with my daughter is different from the relationship between Amy and her son, so our feelings of loss and expressions of grief were also unique.

This is why I never claim to know exactly how you (or any of my friends, clients, students, or family members) feel.

The truth is, none of us ever knows just how another person feels.

We may know what a certain emotion (i.e, sadness, anger, fear, regret) feels like because we have had a personal experience with that emotion. This is how we gain and extend empathy. But, we can never presume to know what another person is thinking or feeling following a loss. Even if you were 34 years old when you and your spouse divorced following an extra-marital affair, and your coworker is divorcing his spouse at the same age due to a similar circumstance, you don't know what it feels like for HIM.


Because your relationships, attachments, and experiences were not the same.

Helping Our Friends (and Ourselves)

Since grief is unique to each person, I'm frequently asked what things are "normal" to feel and experience following a loss. It seems we're often afraid of doing this "grief thing" the wrong way. In an upcoming post, I'll discuss some of the most common reactions to loss, so we can better understand what to expect.

In the meantime, even though we don't know "exactly how our friends feel," we can still support one another in our grief. Rather than comparing our suffering, let's change the way we talk about loss- so we can continue to hold space in our hearts and lives to honor the people, places, and things we have loved the most.

When we deny our grief, we diminish our love.

My dear readers, we can't let this happen on our watch!

P.S.....If you're new to this blog and aren't sure how to support your friends (or yourself) in grief, please visit the following two posts for more practical ideas: "Get Over It…???" and "Reconciliation and Loss."

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