Although understanding the different types of grief may be helpful, it is important to acknowledge that each person who is grieving is an expert in their own grief. As long as no harm is done to oneself or to others, people can grieve the way they need to, for as long as they need to. However, sometimes, a person’s grief can become problematic, causing someone extreme distress over an extended period of time and affecting their functioning and daily living. This is a good time to seek professional support.
We cannot over emphasise that each person’s grief is unique and that there is no fixed timeline or linear path to acceptance and healing. Grief is messy. Many circumstances can affect our grief. The following categories of grief may help to clarify some of the terms you might come across when trying to understand what grief is and how you can best accompany someone who is grieving.
A person can grieve the loss of anything significant to their personal, physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual, and social life. Throughout a person’s life, they will experience many non-death losses, sometimes referred to as ‘living losses.’ Some will feel minor and manageable, while other losses feel devastating and life-altering. Living losses may cause us to feel vulnerable and unsafe in a world where our assumptions about how life should have been, have been shattered. By confronting our grief, we are led to making meaning and rebuilding our world, which is an important part of the grief process.
Often after experiencing a devastating loss, grieving individuals are surprised to learn that there are ripple effects of subsequent losses. When someone experiences grief, it is easy to focus on the one, big, central, or “primary” loss, but grief can feel like it upends every aspect of life when a primary loss is followed by a series of secondary losses. For example, when a sick partner dies, the other partner, who has been caring for them, also loses part of their identity. The loss of a job may lead to a loss of confidence and financial insecurity.
The primary loss causes such significant shifts and fractures that it is accompanied by a domino effect of other losses related to things like meaning, purpose, finances, friends, community, worldview, faith, sense of identity, and so on.
Ambiguous loss happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. The reality is that you are grieving someone who is still living or something which still exists on some level. The hope of things returning to normal is conflicted with the looming realisation that life as you knew it is fading away.
Ambiguous grief is different to the grief you experience when someone you love dies. Death is certain and is finite. An example of an ambiguous loss is when someone who is still physically present in our lives is “psychologically absent” (for example dementia, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury). Sometimes, this kind of loss leaves a person searching and unable to fully grieve.
Cumulative loss refers to the experience of going through a new loss before you have the chance to process the grief of a previous loss. It may occur when we suffer multiple losses in rapid succession. It is important to note that grieving a death is never really “done.” It is common for new losses to bring up memories and emotions about past losses, so some amount of cumulative grief is almost always a given.
When we become overwhelmed by grief, our mind sets off an incredibly powerful defense mechanism: ‘avoidance’. Though avoidance may seem like a bad thing (and it can be), it can also be our body’s way of protecting us and keeping us functioning in the short term. When we are overloaded it allows us to adapt and maintain our day-to-day activities. What becomes important when experiencing cumulative loss, is an awareness that we may need to make a concerted effort to begin the work of facing the reality of the loss, as avoidance can continue indefinitely and affect our well-being negatively in the long term.
From childhood, people imagine, form ideas, make choices, and work towards the future we hope for and, sometimes, need. However, as we go through life, we find out that there are many things that are out of one’s control. Non-finite grief may be experienced when someone cannot have children, a partner, a job or the life they want and have strived for. Non-finite grief is something a person may carry with them for a long time. It continues as they struggle with the push and pull of trying to achieve their hopes and dreams but continually finding that life falls short of their expectations. Any time our life doesn’t match up with our expectations, we are at risk of experiencing non-finite grief.
Anticipatory grief is grief that occurs before an ‘anticipated’ or potential loss. A terminal diagnosis, a diagnosis of a life-limiting disease like dementia or an auto-immune disorder are all examples of situations in which anticipatory grief may occur. Basically, it is beginning to feel grief before death. It can stir up feelings of dread and powerlessness and a sense of mourning, as if the person has actually died. People cope differently but feeling heard and supported when experiencing anticipatory grief is important.
Disenfranchised grief is experienced when a person feels that their right to grieve does not align with widespread social norms and expectations. The loss is sometimes one with a stigma attached, for example, death by suicide, murder, overdose, death of someone in a relationship that is not perceived as legitimate. Sometimes, within our community, the loss just does not seem ‘important enough,’ like the death of a pet or the breakup of a relationship and it is expected that you should ‘get over it is or have ‘moved on.’ Disenfranchised grief causes people to feel ashamed, alienated, and alone.
Traumatic grief happens when a loss occurs in a sudden, unexpected, and sometimes violent manner. Some examples are murder, suicide, overdose, medical crises, accidents, natural disasters and war. It can also impact someone who has witnessed what has happened or has found a loved one deceased. Traumatic grief responses can be severe and prolonged and people living with traumatic grief often benefit from seeking professional assistance.