It's always helpful to begin by recognizing that everyone grieves differently and our experiences also change over time. Therefore, different types of grief may occur in relation to a particular loss as we process and integrate it into our lives.
The labels used here reflect today's conventions, so they'll likely continue to evolve as our understanding of grief advances.
This main type of grief points to a set of characteristics that are statistically most likely to accompany the experience of a loss and therefore are considered "normal", e.g., sadness, longing, confusion, fatigue, poor concentration, and anxiety. Within the first 6 months we tend to be able to function effectively in our daily lives without frequent intrusive memories or emotional storms and we become largely reconciled to this type of grief within a year.
In truth, most grief can be complicated because it tends to have such a pervasive effect on our whole self and presents new challenges as time passes. However, this heightened state is usually associated with deep bonds — especially close relationships — that we’ve come to incorporate into our very identities. Sometimes we call this “heartbreak” because the suffering is so intense and we’re significantly changed forever by the loss, requiring us to adjust to a "new normal".
While the anguish of complicated grief usually begins to soften in the first few weeks, it will likely be open-ended and continue to cycle, evolve, and shape us for the rest of our lives.
A severe variation of this type is associated with sudden or traumatic loss and can cause acute, disabling reactions, with self-harming behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse, or suicidality. In these situations, it's vital to speak with a professional counselor or to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
This type is associated with experiences that others might find unworthy of being deeply grieved, such as a miscarriage or the death of a beloved pet. It tends to have strong cultural roots and can result in feelings of shame and embarrassment, exacerbating feelings of isolation and loneliness, and inhibiting healthy expression. On less obvious occasions, we’re even ambivalent about our grief if we didn’t expect to feel a loss quite so intensely, e.g., after leaving our favorite hat on a train.
This type is characterized by an uneasy sense that we’re not reacting to a loss as "normally" expected, e.g., with evident pain and sorrow. This may result from inaccurate assumptions about how one “should” grieve (especially if others are displaying related feelings). In addition, cultural or social norms can prevent an individual from recognizing and honoring their own unique grief reactions, e.g., resentment, regret, or guilt.
This type can also reflect a particular situation, e.g., we can feel accepting and reconciled when a peaceful, anticipated death occurs after a full and satisfying life, or alternately, when a loved one passes after a prolonged, debilitating or excruciating medical condition.
This type is often expressed through avoidance activities, with the us consciously or unconsciously engaging in “busy” distractions to suppress unpleasant thoughts and feelings. While this might seem to help us in the immediate moment, it doesn’t erase the grief. Instead, the grief can manifest in ways that are more difficult to understand and heal. This can include a variety of surprising physical and cognitive symptoms, such as brain fog, memory lapses, nightmares, hair loss, rashes, appetite changes, tremors, or heart palpitations.
Sometimes we become aware that the end is near and we react to that reality before it even begins to unfold. As we prepare ourselves, we start to experience the grief in our bodies, minds and hearts in advance of the final event(s). This process is often marked by worry due to the uncertainty of the timeline how it will end. This aspect can be very draining and stressful. We may ruminate and confer with others about the situation as we try to gain our bearings (with varying degrees of success). Sometimes these efforts help us cope, reducing the torment; but often we find ourselves needing to continually adjust to unpredictable changes and then recalibrate our expectations and beliefs.
Alternately, grief may not be experienced when the loss actually takes place; instead, there’s a notable time lapse. This can happen for many reasons, e.g., the affected person’s developmental stage, shock, an intent to "be strong" for others, or due to extenuating crises. Later on, this unprocessed grief can be triggered by new losses (even subtle ones) that require their own attention. We may quickly become overwhelmed and have difficulty sorting out these different experiences due to a layering effect that floods us with thoughts and emotions. The support of others who are familiar with the original loss often helps with the healing process.
When we experience a major loss in our lives, it's natural to be consumed by it, focusing intently on the experience and reflecting on how it involves the past and future. But sometimes we direct our grief onto a substitute; perhaps we fear negative consequences by confronting it directly, are angry about “unfinished business” with the deceased, or simply want to provoke a response from someone (since the deceased no longer can grant this). Most often, the substitute is another individual connected with the loss who bears the impact of these cathartic reactions.
Milder forms of this type can present as a preoccupation with possessing a personal belonging of the deceased or spending time in a place they frequented. This coping response can eventually develop into full recognition of the true source of the grief.
This type leaves us feeling "trapped" with a particularly strong grief response that persists or intensifies even after many months. A bereavement support group can be helpful in gaining new perspectives on such an extreme loss experience.
This type is often associated with big life events, e.g., divorce, retirement, disability, infertility, or relocation, and for some bereaved persons, it can involve adverse long-term health effects and end up eclipsing the rest of life without proper support. Furthermore, this type of grief is now recognized as having the potential to extend across generations and continents, as experienced by descendants of slavery, survivors of genocide, asylum-seekers, and refugees of war or famine.
This type is a particularly timely due to the persistent despair and anguish that we are all collectively experiencing due to climate chaos and the Covid pandemic.
Please Note: Grief is an especially complex aspect of life and RemembeRing content is intended for informational purposes only and does not replace professional evaluation and counseling services that specialize in assessing and processing the grief experience. I hope you find this resource helpful, and you're invited to share it with others.