Grief is complicated. And no, I’m not just talking about ‘complicated grief,’ which is a type of grief you can actually be diagnosed with.
No, grief is complicated because it’s an emotion that is more like happiness in how it settles in to our bodies.
- Like happiness, grief doesn’t always exist on its own, though it can.
- Like happiness, grief doesn’t require you to do much of anything to feel it –– though there are things you can do to lessen or intensify it.
- Like happiness, grief doesn’t occur in a single moment. It isn’t like anger, or joy. It is prolonged. It is a season. It is a way of living.
In those ways, perhaps grief is the opposite of happiness. Except that you can both be happy and be grieving –– at the exact same time. What is that quote by Walt Whitman?
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
That quote perfectly describes grief.
Grief can live side-by-side with joy. Or with anger. Or with fear. Or with gratitude. Or, yes, even with happiness.
This is what makes grief complicated. And it is further complicated by the amount of events and moments and memories that can spur grief.
You don’t need someone you love to die to experience grief either.
No, you’ll get to experience grief long before that when you experience regret, or physical separation, or if you lose your job, your house, or heck –– maybe even your nice lawn.
There are no rules here. Our brains are as complicated as the feelings they give us and anything can set grief off.
In this piece, we’ll break down what grief is and explain as many types as we possibly can.
Understanding What Grief Is
Grief is a strong feeling and sense of sadness or melancholy often caused by the death of someone close to you, the loss of something that helped formed your identity (a job, a relationship, a home), or a wide variety of other things.
Because grief can be caused by so many events and situations, it is difficult to give grief only one definition. Instead, let’s look at the various types of grief which help to bucket the emotion properly based on the situation.
The Different Types of Grief Explained
All right, if you’ve read to here, then you already know there are so many different types of grief. And, you know why there are so many different types of grief.
- Because we are human beings.
- Because emotions are difficult to understand.
- Because you don’t need a massive death in the family to grieve.
Grief can show up for a million reasons –– and, it’s completely normal for it to do so.
Here are some of the most well-known, and often experienced, types of grief.
Normal grief, also known as uncomplicated grief, is defined by the American Psychology Association as grief that lasts 6 months to 2 years following the loss of someone extremely close to you (either in death or a severed relationship).
While there is a time period put to normal grief here, it is important to know that the definition of normal grief changes in various cultures and over time.
- In Victorian times, for instance, it was normal to grieve for four years before moving into an additional period of half-mourning.
- In places like Japan, Shinto grieving practices have families reconvene to mourn a significant loss over a period of several years, often as a way to gather community and tell stories about the deceased.
A study done by WedMD in 2019 found that more than half of Americans are grieving the loss of someone close to them over the last three years, and that few Americans feel that the grief ends at the three year mark.
In this way, normal grief is difficult to define, as it is different for everyone.
Anticipatory grief is grief that is felt prior to the loss of someone you love, often due to a terminal illness or diagnosis, but that can be sparked by a variety of circumstances.
For instance, during a pandemic like COVID-19, you might experience anticipatory grief due to the unknown –– what will happen, when will it happen, how will it happen?
Anticipatory grief can be as intense are other forms of grief, including both mental and physical symptoms and issues that cause a disruption in your normal life and schedule.
It is important to know that anticipatory grief is normal, especially when it is tied to a close family member or friend who will soon pass away. This is our body and brain’s way of recognizing and preparing for the inevitable.
Fear and anxiety are often larger parts of anticipatory grief than conventional grief.
In fact, the fear of being alone, of what life will be like without them, or who you will be without them can lead to extreme anxiety that then forms anticipatory grief.
According to VeryWellHealth: “A study of Swedish women who had lost a husband found that 40% of the women found the pre-loss stage more stressful than the post-loss stage,” proving that the anticipatory grief can often be the hardest part. It is our fear of the unknown that puts us in this place.
You aren’t crazy. Those fears are real, and valid. Yes, it is normal for anticipatory grief to feel like a roller coaster ride of emotions. Grief, in general, feels this way – and it's OK.
Delayed grief is exactly what it sounds like –– a delayed onset of grief following the severing of a connection with someone else (death, divorce, etc.).
Typically, delayed grief is brought on by another big event or loss –– like another death, loss of a job, etc. Delayed grief is also often caused by a difficult grieving situation.
- For instance, it can be caused by growing up in a culture or environment that discourages grieving.
- Or, it can be due to feeling like you shouldn’t grieve for this person, and masking those emotions even from yourself.
- Or, it can simply be caused by not wanting to face the situation and address it.
In these ways, our brains play tricks on us until something happens that makes the loss a reality.
Complicated grief is also known as traumatic or prolonged grief, and it is a diagnosis you can receive from a medical doctor.
Some experience complicated grief in the sense that they didn't know the deceased very well, but nonetheless they had an impact on their life, such as the loss of an estranged father.
For a long time, grief was considered a personal state, not a medical one. However, new evidence shows that CG (complicated grief) can make you feel worthless and suicidal, which is similar to depression. Because of this, doctors now seek to treat complicated grief like a disorder, suggesting therapies and treatments to lessen the draining hurt of grief.
Complicated grief is accentuated by the inability to accept the death of a loved one, and the feelings of intense sadness for years.
Typically, folks who are experiencing complicated grief shut themselves off from friends or family, losing additional relationships and making it difficult to recover based on isolation, lonliness and paralysis.
There are treatments, though, and both a medical diagnosis as well as talking to a therapist can help immediately.
Disenfranchised grief occurs when you lack social recognition or societal support of your loss.
Many pet owners often feel disenfranchised grief at the loss of their pet, as they grieve deeply but also feel they can’t take time off of work, or don’t know who or how to talk about the way they feel.
Kenneth Doka literally wrote the book on disenfranchised grief in the 1980s. In it, he describes disenfranchised grief as what occurs anytime someone feels that society has denied their “need, right, role, or capacity to grieve.”
Chronic grief and complicated grief are very similar. In fact, it seems to be that chronic grief is what folks called complicated grief before complicated grief became the hip term (if you can say that a term about grief is hip at all).
Similar to complicated grief, chronic grief is prolonged grief that does not seem to reduce in severity over a period of time.
Some doctors believe that chronic grief results as a way to hold on to a loved one after they pass, upholding their memory, any promises made (especially those of fidelity), etc.
Remember, though, that it is normal to experience grief in waves. Even decades later, you may grieve as though the loss just occured one day, and the next day feel much more normal. This is how grief works. It is why it becomes part of us and our lives, not something we just go through.
You can think of distorted grief as the type of grief someone is feeling in the case they get stuck in the anger stage of the stages of grief.
Those who have distorted grief are angry, at the world, at others, at themselves. There is likely hostility, fighting, and even self-harm happening.
In a way, this is a version of complicated grief in which someone gets stuck at a particular point or stage of the grieving process.
Anger itself at the death or the loss of a connection is normal –– just not for a prolonged period of time, and not in the case it hurts others or yourself.
Cumulative grief is grief that builds up over a period of time, likely due to a number of deaths, losses, life events, etc.
For instance, between my junior year of high school and my sophomore year of college, my small hometown had about 10 deaths of people my age –– and I attended many of the funerals (it’s a small town after all!).
Over time, the individual grief for each of the funerals faded, and there was in its place an overall sense of normality around death and sadness, occasionally hopelessness, that would be best defined as cumulative grief.
Years of no close deaths in my life, therapy, and being open and honest with friends and family about the experience has helped my grief return to normal.
It is OK to go through periods like this, and to let your brain and body process as they need. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many people are experiencing cumulative grief – as the pandemic adds on grief to already existing grievances like losses, family being in hospice, job losses and more.
Prolonged grief is experienced by 10-20% of the bereaved and can be medically diagnosed. Prolonged grief impacts normal functioning and has ill long-term effects on physical health.
People with prolonged grief often feel stuck in their grief, experience a chronic aching and yearning for the departed, feel that they are not the same person anymore (e.g., unsure of their identity, loss of a sense of self and self-worth), become emotionally disconnected from others, and lack the desire to "move on" (sometimes feeling that doing so would be betraying the person who is now deceased).
Most people who experience grief exerience this loss of self. One of the major components of grief is change –– the loss of normalcy, the loss of someone or a situation that helped make up your identity, and more. It is normal to feel paralyzed by grief. It is normal to seek new meaning in life after a loss and due to grief.
Prolonged grief is an exagerated version of those normal tendancies.
Exaggerated grief is the exaggeration of the normal grief process, either through actions, words, or mental health.
Exaggerated grief may include major psychiatric disorders that develop following a loss such a phobias as a result of hyper-grieving thoughts, actions, words, etc.
Masked grief is grief that the person experiencing the grief does not say they have –– or that they mask.
This can be common among men, or in society and cultures in which there are rules that dictate how you must act, or appear following the loss of someone close to you.
Perhaps, you were close to someone and no one knew about it. This can also cause someone to try to mask their grief in order to save face.
No matter why masked grief is occuring, it is dangerous.
It can cause mental illnesses and disorders as the person who is grieving does not give themselves the time or space to actually grieve.
Remember, grief is normal. And necessary.
Traumatic grief occurs after an abrupt and unexpected loss. In other words, tragedy is at the heart of it.
We are not just mourning the loss, we are traumatized by it –– sparking fear, anxiety and more.
Traumatic grief is often the grief experienced by those who have been killed in terrorist attacks, car crashes, drownings, and more.
Collective grief is the type of grieving experienced by communities or societies. It is most often talked about in regards to a major celebrity’s death, but you also see it in major movements where gun violence spurs action and hopefully change.
For many in the United States, there is a massive collective grief that is on-going due to multiple traumatic and unnerving events that have been highly publicized. On a world-wide scale, many of us have collective grief around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inhibited grief is when someone shows some signs of grieving, but not nearly to the level or intensity expected based on the relationship that has been severed.
There may be versions of masking grief or delayed grief in these scenarios.
Abbreviated grief is a short-lived grief in which the person who is grieving feels like they should, or they do, move on quickly. You see this with folks who re-marry quickly after the death of a partner, for instance. Abbreviated grief does not mean that the person is not grieving. It does not mean that they didn't have a close tie or bond with the person who passed. There can be a number of reasons why abbreviated grief occurs, including prolonged or delayed grief.
Absent grief is defined as there being no grief in the aftermath of a death or the loss of an important relationship. Many people who experience a ton of anticipatory grief or have been the main caregivers for people may experience this type of grief.
It often occurs because the person has grieved so much already, or that there is a sense of relief with the grief that can quickly help someone to understand that the person is no longer in pain, that they all did the best the could, and that the time has come to move on.
Common Frequently Asked Questions About Grief
That’s a lot of types of grief! And, learning about those and maybe even trying to self-diagnose probably raises a bunch of questions. So, let’s get to them!
Is it normal to grieve?
Absolutely. It is completely normal to grieve. In fact, many of the types of grief we outlined above are concerning because of the lack of visible grief.
Grief is so normal that it is expected to be a part of your life forever after the event.
It’s intensities will go up and down based on time of year and how long its been sense the event, but the grief will likely always be there in one form or another, existing alongside other emotions and feelings like joy, happiness, and more.
Are mourning and grief the same?
No, mourning and grief are not the same.
- Grief is the emotion you feel, the state of mind you are in, when you experience the loss of a relationship through death, divorce, etc.
- Mourning is the traditional or inventive activation of grief, the movements you go through as you experience grief.
For instance, a funeral is a mourning event. Wearing black to that funeral is a type of mourning. Creating a legacy project is a type of mourning. Growing their favorite flower, or jouraliing to them, or cooking their favorite meal –– these are all types of mourning.
Is it okay to be angry when I grieve?
Yes, it is absolutely OK to be angry when you grieve. The goal is to not hurt yourself or others during the times you experience anger.
Anger is normal when grieving as you come to terms with what happened to the person you love.
You may feel that the situation is unfair. Maybe you are angry at someone who caused something to happen. Maybe you are angry at the person who died. Maybe you are angry with yourself.
Anger is a way to sort through the emotions and help our brain come to terms with the events. Prolonged anger, however, can be issue, as can anger that causes you to hurt yourself or others.
What people have the hardest time when losing someone?
There is no possible way to answer this question. Everyone deals with grief and loss differently, and it is important to not compare one loss to another.
Grief cannot be ranked.
Someone else’s loss is not the same as yours. The relationship you have with the person or pet who died is what matters most in terms of the intensity of grief, but no one’s grief is more or less than another’s.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement is the period of grief and mourning after a death.
Is it okay to try to push your feelings away when grieving?
To an extent, yes, it is OK to try and push your feelings away when grieving, but you will need to deal with them at some point. Why not now? If you are strongly wanting to do this, reach out to a therapist (they even have online ones now!) and talk to them about the way you are feeling. They can help you reset your point of view on doing this, and help you navigate the waters of experiencing the emotion.
Putting this off and pushing the feelings away can lead to long-term mental and physical ailments over time.
Is crying a good way to grieve?
Yes, absolutely crying is a good way to grieve. Crying releases endorphins and makes us feel better as well as helps to wring us of the emotion.
Will your grief be gone after a good cry? No. But will you feel better giving yourself this time to really feel the emotion and let it pass through you? Absolutely.
Should I talk to people about my feelings?
Yes, you should absolutely talk to people about your feelings. Talk to friends. Talk to family. Talk to a therapist. Talk to a grief support group. Talk to your cat. Heck, talk to yourself! And remind friends and family (and maybe even yourself) that what you need right now is for someone to listen, not to placate you. Through the talking, also tell stories about the person who love.
- Who they were.
- What they loved.
- Why you loved them.
These are also helpful and cathartic. And remember, it’s 100% OK to cry.
Is it okay to want to be alone when grieving?
Yes, it is OK to want to be alone when grieving. Most people who are grieving seperate themselves from people for a little bit. And that’s ok. You are processes. That said, folks who are grieving have also said in studies that the #1 thing that is most helpful during grieving is being around friends and family.
Just like working out every day can be a real drag when you think about it, being around friends and family at this time may seem difficult or impossible, but it is a healthy thing –– and one that can make you feel a lot better, too.
Is there a right way to grieve?
No, there is no single right way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently, hence all the different types of grief!
Whew! That’s a lot of talk about grief. Let us know if we forgot a type of grief, or didn’t answer a question you have. Send us a message on Twitter or Instagram at @Eterneva and we will get it added in.
It is always important to remember that there is no single right way to grieve.
Everyone walks their own, unique grief journey –– and you will too.
The only thing that grievers seem to have in common is that being around friends and/or family is helpful.
When with them, tell stories, laugh, let joy back in, and let it hang out there with the grief. Both have a home within you. You contradict yourself. You are large enough to do so. You contain multitudes, and versions of you and your life: now, in the past, and in the future.