— What They Are and What They Feel Like, According to Experts
Grief doesn’t just happen after bereavement.
By Madeleine Burry
The loss of a loved one isn’t the only life event that leads to grief, and grieving isn’t just about hard crying, deep sadness, and other ovewhelming emotions. “We grieve and experience loss at every life transition,” Emily Stone, PhD, owner and senior clinician at Unstuck Group, a consulting organization for churches. That grief can be spurred on by sad or tragic events (a house fire, an infertility diagnosis, the loss of a job) and even by more joyous moments, like a child graduating kindergarten or going off to college, she says, because of what’s lost due to the change.
Opening up to the possibility that there are various types of grief is important for healing. “When we can recognize and name what’s going on emotionally inside of us, we can be kinder to ourselves during the process,” California-based therapist Skylar Ibarra, MSW, LCSW, tells Health. “Once they were able to see their grief for what it was, they were able to start healing,” she says.
Here, are some of the lesser known varieties of grief a person may experience, what they feel like, and what can cause them.
Expecting loss or change can lead to anticipatory grief. With it, “we end up essentially experiencing the loss before it even happens,” Robin Hornstein, PhD, a licensed psychologist and co-owner of the Philadelphia-based mental health practice Hornstein Platt & Associates, tells Health.
That can have a destructive element. Hornstein recalls a person diagnosed with a disease in childhood who anticipated dying young. Now, the individual is in their 80s. “Approaching their actual death, as they are not well, has made them understand how much time they have spent worrying,” Hornstein says.
But there’s a reason people engage in this behavior: It provides a sense of control. “Anticipatory grief is our mind and body’s way of preparing for the loss. We do this to make the ‘after’ of the loss a bit less intense-and it works,” Ibarra says.
Grief doesn’t always happen immediately: Sometimes people aren’t in a place to process loss, Stone says. That can be because of cognitive or emotional reasons, she notes, such as a young age or trauma. “I often see delayed grief in clients when they hit points of transitions in their life: at their wedding, at graduation, at the birth of a child,” Stone says.
This type of grief “can feel overwhelming, confusing, and unwarranted at first, since we don’t immediately recognize that we are grieving a long-ago loss,” Ibarra explains.
With this type, it may seem to people around you-and yourself-as if you’re not grieving something you feel you should be grieving, or your grief doesn’t look like the grief of people around you. But there can be a lot of reasons for not having a typical response, Ibarra says.
Shock, a feeling of relief that someone’s free from pain, or lack of understanding how to grieve-these can all lead to absent grief, Hornstein says. “Sometimes it could be linked to already processing the loss, such as an abusive parent or someone who has been ill for a long time,” she notes.
A person might even grieve without realizing it. “Many people think of grief as uncontrollable tears, ripping clothing, not being able to get out of bed, etc.,” Ibarra says. But it can also manifest as anger, difficulty concentrating, or intense worry, she says. “These aren’t the typical grief reactions we see in popular media, but they are what I see in my office,” she notes.
“Inhibited grief is usually classified as grief that someone is consciously attempting to quash,” Ibarra says. This can look like overworking or being excessively busy, Hornstein says. “Sadly, this does not stop the grief, just twists it into a different form that is harder to work through,” she says.
Ibarra compares it to ignoring a pebble in your shoe: Leave it in place instead of removing it, and a blister will form. “So not only do you now have to deal with the pebble, but the blister, too,” she says.
This type of grief isn’t recognized by our culture, Stone notes. That can be because people don’t think the event is worthy of mourning or due to your circumstances. For example, you may not be fully and openly mourn the loss of a lover in an extramarital affair, she points out.
It can also be a kind of grief that feels hard to explain, Hornstein says. “I once literally cried over a death on a long-running TV show and felt an acute sense of sadness,” she says. But taking off of work due to Poussey dying on Orange Is the New Black might not make much sense to others, she says.
“There are so many situations where a loss is not recognized or just glazed over by society.” Stone says. “This can be a very dark and lonely journey for the person experiencing the loss.”
There are other types of grief, too
People may experience environmental grief tied to the worsening climate, Ibarra says. “Another one that many people experience is perpetual grief after the diagnosis and living with a long-term disability,” Ibarra says. Or, people may grieve over the loss of an imagined future (this can occur due to an infertility diagnosis, the loss of a job, and so on).
There can also be unexpressed grief that’s intergenerational, Hornstein notes. She gives the example of survivors of genocide victims, who will never know their predecessors. “They might harbor a sense of fear/doom that this could happen again or is still happening in a different way and have grief symptoms that are expressed in familial patterns,” Hornstein says. It’s something that’s seen in BIPOC people in the United States, she notes.
“This type of grief is hard and needs unpacking so that feelings can be expressed, and actions taken to be more present and find ways to feel safe,” Hornstein adds.
Coping strategies for different types of grief
Coping strategies may differ based on the type of grief a person experiences. “If someone is experiencing a delayed grief reaction because they are in crisis, then the crisis needs to be addressed first,” Ibarra says.
But there are some general strategies that apply to all types of grief, Hornstein says. These include:
Be kind to yourself
“If you notice you are grieving, be compassionate, allow for time, drop the need to be perfect at it or anything else, do not judge the quality or length of time you grieve, and honor the feelings,” Hornstein says.
It can be cathartic and healing to create a memorial for the person or thing you’ve lost, Ibarra says. “This may be a letter you burn or an altar you maintain for years. It allows us to accept the reality of the loss, create a space to feel our feelings, and to build a new life moving forward-all critical parts of the grieving process,” she says.
Look out for displaced grief
That can take the form of crying over flowers instead of missing someone who has died, Hornstein says. “Allow the grief to lead you where you need to be,” Hornstein says.
Signs you should seek help
“No one escapes grief,” Hornstein says.But the process-though normal and necessary for long-term health-can be challenging and painful, Ibarra says. And the kind of grief you feel over one thing or event may be very different than that of another, so your response may feel unfamiliar and worrisome. “You deserve support as you navigate this experience,” Ibarra says. That’s true for anyone experiencing grief, she says. Still, there are a few indicators that you should reach out for help.
You think you want it
“You do not need to be broken and nothing needs to be wrong with you to seek the help of a professional,” Ibarra says-that is, if you think you’d benefit from support, seek it out.
Your day-to-day routine is suffering
If you are not able to go through the ordinary routine of life-taking regular showers, showing up to work on time, and so on-it’s a good idea to seek help, Hornstein says. Difficulty sleeping or an inability to eat are also cues to reach out for support, she says.
You feel a prolonged sense of hopelessness
Certain feelings-such as intense, out-of-control anger or prolonged hopelessness-can be a sign that you should seek professional help, Ibarra says.
You’re dealing with survivor’s guilt
Reach out to professionals if you experience guilt over being alive or a desire to self-harm, Hornstein says. But keep this in mind: “You do not need to wait until things get really bad to seek help,” Ibarra adds.
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