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June 22, 2020 Beyond The Dash

Loss, Not Death, Causes Grief. Ignoring it Makes Death Harder.

Grieve for the small things, and you'll be better equipped for a death

Loss, Not Death, Causes Grief. Ignoring it Makes Death Harder.
Feeling lost? That feeling might be grief — even if no one has passed away. (Getty Images)

Grief is a response to loss, not death. 

There is a common misconception that grief is a response to death. In fact, grief follows losses of all kinds. The death of a loved one is usually the most permanent kind of loss, but the loss of a relationship, a special belonging, a job, or a significant change can also trigger a grief reaction. 

Yet, like many other death-adjacent subjects, discussion of grief and loss is taboo in many circles. Discomfort, fear and avoidance all contribute to a culture of silence surrounding mortality. Discussion of grief in response to non-death loss can be even more off-limits.

The grief stigma

The triggers of grief are different for everyone. The death of a close loved one is the most socially accepted reason to grieve, but this understanding is often conditional. Grief is even more misunderstood when it comes as a response to non-death loss, as this pain may not seem 'bad enough' when compared to a death. 

Acknowledging all kinds of loss helps us prepare for death

Emotional gatekeeping only further alienates people when they are in a vulnerable frame of mind. In a grief scenario, 'gatekeeping' means certain losses are considered worse than others. This leads to a culture of silence about things that cause us unexplainable emotional distress, which means many never cope with grief they experience. 

While the immediate consequences may not be too serious, people who ignore grief — in any form — may be less prepared for the death of a loved one. Practicing self-awareness and self-compassion when losses occur can set people up for a healthier approach to death. When the time comes, a solid foundation of understanding and coping skills will put you in a better position to handle the ultimate for of loss — the death of a loved one. 

Why do people grieve?

Mourning losses helps us acknowledge changes and move on with less damage to emotional and physical health suffered in the long run. 

Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and happens as a result of a change. Even if the change offers new and exciting opportunities, wistfulness for things that are now in the past is a normal emotion. Like losing people, losing your connection to a thing, place, ideology, or element of your identity can amount to grief in some cases. 

Contrary to popular belief, grief is actually good. It is the healing process that makes you (more) whole following emotional damage. Knowing that emotional damage is inevitable, learning to accept and cope helps us navigate life and pain going forward. That's not to say it makes life easier, but self-awareness around coping does make dealing with life's tests easier. Those who do not face grief as a journey may ultimately end up prolonging and intensifying their own suffering, though this isn't always the case.

Loss of love

Losing a romantic relationship is one of the most common reasons people grieve. This type of loss can happen again and again, and each loss does not necessarily prepare you for the next. The loss of a significant other can feel like a death, especially when the aftermath involves no contact. 

Losing a romantic relationship causes many people to sink into despair, some longer than others. This is grief. (Getty Images)

Loss of a relationship

Just because a loved one is still alive, does not mean they are not gone. People come and go in our lives. Whether a parting between individuals is mutual, acrimonious or simply the result of circumstances beyond control, it's possible to grieve the loss of any relationship. One example is parent-child estrangement, which usually involves an adult child cutting off contact with their parent. No one has died, but both the parent and child may experience serious, long-lasting grief.

Loss of religion

A crisis of faith can cause a grief reaction. When a person's ideology changes, it can challenge their very foundation. Losing beliefs that once explained the rational order of the world is loss, even if the grief experience is intangible. 

Loss of religion is often accompanied by loss of relationships, as the shared belief no longer links the individual with their church or community. 

Loss of identity

We humans build our identities around our achievements, values and place in community. But what happens when these are stripped away? Many people who find their identities shifting go through a period of bereavement. Regaining a sense of self is a turbulent process whereby the individual must shed elements of their former identity, while building new interests and accomplishments. 

In fact, loss of identity is often a part of mourning for someone who has passed away. 

Loss of a previously held worldview

Our views shape our beliefs, actions and personal comfort. When a worldview is challenged and dropped, it can feel like an attack on your identity and sense of safety in an unpredictable world.

Loss of a meaningful belonging

While it may be hard to imagine grieving for the loss of a belonging, people do mourn for lost, broken, and stolen objects when they are emotionally meaningful. This grief cannot (and should not) be compared to the loss of a person, but that does not mean that discomfort and sadness isn't a form of bereavement. 

Loss of a place

Losing a home, or access to a place that was considered home, can feel like the loss of a person. In many cases, homes and places are emotionally tied to people who have died, making the loss even more difficult to accept. 

Loss of a job

The unexpected loss of a job can trigger grief, particularly when the job formed part of the person's identity. Sudden lack of income also contributes to uncertainty and stress, which can aggravate grief. 

Losing a job is a common reason many people experience grief. Loss of work relationships, financial uncertainty and damage to the ego can trigger a grief reaction. (Getty Images)

Loss of health

A terminal prognosis, loss of physical independence, loss of limb or other deterioration of health can cause grief. In fact, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief were originally a model for the grief a terminally ill person experiences in relation to their own impending death. 

Loss of a celebrity

There are also death losses that aren't generally considered griefworthy, but can trigger grief nonetheless. The death of a celebrity or role model is a form of loss that is misunderstood. For example, the untimely loss of Kobe Bryant early in 2020 sparked an outpouring of grief, and many did not understand why the loss of a celebrity could be so emotional. 

Loss of normalcy and safety

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown people worldwide how profoundly a change in safety can affect state of mind. Not knowing how the future will unfold is frightening. It's difficult to make any long-term plans, and there's no knowing if the world will ever go back to the way it once was. Knowing 'things will never be the same' is a common grief trigger for many people. 

Grieving for the loss of a loved one

Grief is a valid response to losses of all kinds, but that doesn't mean there isn't a hierarchy at play. There can never be a comparison between the loss of a belonging, for instance, and the loss of a fellow person. When discussing loss, be sure to be sensitive to those who have lost loved ones. All forms of grief are valid, but the loss of a person is the most profound, irreplaceable and permanent form of loss that most of us will ever experience. 

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