While the term “grief” explains the emotions of loss and mourning someone feels after losing a loved one, one word isn’t sufficient in summing up the varying experiences that come from different types of grief.
If you are navigating this healing path, you might be wondering what “normal grief” looks like. Are you on the expected track for the type of loss you are facing? The truth is that grief responses are as unique as the shoes in a fashionista’s closet. While everyone wears shoes, there are different sizes, colors, and styles depending on each person's needs and preferences.
What is Grief?
Grief is a strong, emotional response that occurs after loss. The most common grief happens after losing a loved one to death, divorce, job loss, separation, or estrangement. This mourning period can last for weeks, months, or even years.
These grief reactions are not only emotional and mental, but they can also affect a person’s physical experience. It’s typical for grieving individuals to compare their emotions to a rollercoaster, with ups and downs from day-to-day and even hour-to-hour:
- Difficulty concentrating
- And more
Not only is grief about the loss of a loved one, but grief often encompasses the pain of other losses that happen as the result of this loss – such as companionship, loss of income, changing family dynamics, memories, and more.
Normal grief means that you are feeling the emotions that surface after saying goodbye to a loved one. Eventually, you gradually work into a space of accepting the loss, and time helps to heal the wounds so you can move forward in your life more effectively.
Types of Grief
Understanding the different types of grief can help you find meaning and clarity in the emotions you are experiencing after losing a loved one. Even though you can’t control this process, knowledge about the stages of grief can help you prepare for the circumstances that lie ahead.
Focus on patience and compassion for yourself through this process. Keep in mind that some people only experience one or two types of grief, while others move through varying stages as they heal from the loss. Consider this overview of the most common types of grief:
Often, death is anticipated and expected. It’s no surprise that everyone will reach the end of this life at some point – the question is when it will happen. Will your loved ones live a long and fulfilling life, or have circumstances that end the journey earlier than expected?
Anticipatory grief can start before a person passes away. This reaction happens when you know in advance that you are going to lose a loved one. As soon as you come to terms with the fact that the person is nearing the end of their life, the grief process begins. Even if your family member is still alive and breathing, it’s possible to feel grief about the upcoming loss.
Example of Anticipatory Grief: The most common situation when anticipatory grief happens is when a person has a terminal illness. The family has time to gradually prepare for a new reality in the future, as well as the imminent loss coming with changing family structures and roles in the future.
The term “complicated grief” is also commonly known as prolonged or traumatic grief. The longevity and severity of complicated grief are what make it unique. Often, someone experiencing complicated grief has emotions that impair their ability to function.
Complicated grief comes with other warning signs of traumatic grief, such as violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, self-destructive choices, and low self-esteem.
Example of Complicated Grief: You can connect this type of grief with the nature of the death. For instance, if multiple loved ones pass away in an accident or you lose a loved one in violent circumstances, then the grief emotions are different compared to other types of “normal grief.”
Community support is critical in helping someone work through grief. Without the care of family and friends, a person might experience disenfranchised grief. This type of grief happens when a loss occurs, but it isn’t an immediate family member. Other people don’t acknowledge the loss or see the need for support, so they are left to face the grief alone.
Disenfranchised grief can also occur when a person remains physically present, but they are gone in other ways. For example, if a loved one has dementia, the decline in mental and emotional abilities starts the grief process early – before the physical loss of the person.
Example of Disenfranchised Grief: This type of grief might occur if a person loses a co-worker, friend, ex-spouse, or even a pet. The person experiences the emotions of loss and grief but doesn’t have the same type of support that often comes when an immediate family member is lost.
When the loss of a loved one happens without clear understanding or closure, ambiguous grief is often the result. The grieving person is left behind, searching for answers and peace to heal from the emotions.
While it’s normal to look for closure, ambiguous grief differs from normal grief because it delays and complicates the stages of grief. The person continues with ongoing, unresolved grief that can influence their life for many months or years.
Example of Ambiguous Grief: A variety of situations can cause ambiguous grief, such as the disappearance of a family member, unknown cause of death, or stillborn birth.
Even though it’s common for grief to set in immediately after losing a loved one, some people experience a delay before they feel a sense of grief and pain.
When someone has delayed grief, they are either subconsciously or consciously avoiding the pain and reality of their loss. Suppressing these emotions and reactions provide the temporary relief they desire, but the grief will eventually surface later on.
Example of Delayed Grief: If a person focuses on funeral planning and other busy activities in life, they might suppress the grief until they experience a quieter moment in life in the future.
The grief experience is overwhelming no matter the circumstances. Combine multiple losses in a short amount of time, and the grief can build into a more significant situation.
Cumulative grief can happen when multiple losses happen at once. Or, it can be a serial fashion, with several deaths in succession.
Example of Cumulative Grief: When someone is grieving the first loss and experiences the loss of another family member. For example, a family member dies in a tragic accident, and then a woman miscarries or has a stillbirth.
Healing from Grief
These types of grief are unique, requiring different self-care strategies to heal from the pain and loss. Regardless of the kind of grief, when someone finds it challenging to move forward after losing a loved one, it’s often helpful to find help through a grief counselor or support groups.