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Different Kinds of Grief


Many people think grief is only about losing a person or pet, but that’s not true. My client Sharanne came into session one day in tears. When I asked why she was crying she shook her head and said, “That’s the problem. I don’t know. I just feel so sad, like nothing means anything anymore.” After a bit of discussion, she added, “This is how I felt after my father died when I was in college, when I was grieving.” 

Later on in the session, Sharanne who’s in her 50s, married, childless, and with a successful career, mentioned having run into a high school friend with her three children and how her mood changed after that encounter. Suddenly it dawned on Sharanne that her friend’s life was the one she wanted. She’d wanted children but put aside the desire and decision as she and her husband built their careers until she felt her “maternity deadline” had past. The more we discussed what she was feeling, the more she was sure she was grieving over the life she could have had as a mother and didn’t.

The older we get, the more we have to grieve about because losses accumulate. A client is being evicted because her landlord is selling the building, her father just died, and her dysfunctional family is not only no longer a support but is making her life miserable. Another client is recognizing that he’ll never reach the career heights he’d hoped for because of chronic mental and physical health problems. 

A client in her early adult years is sad she’ll never be able to return to her idyllic childhood with a host of caring relatives surrounding her and is now expected (and expects herself) to make it on her own. An elderly couple I treat are feeling bereft leaving the house they built where they raised their children to move into a retirement community. A few elderly friends are mourning the loss of sports they loved and were active in: downhill skiing, racquetball, long-distance biking, and running marathons.

The point of grieving losses is not to make yourself unhappy but to acknowledge whatever feelings of sadness (or anything else) you’re experiencing. You may miss out on mourning non-person losses because you (wrongly) believe they’re not important or because you feel you should just suck up certain events or experiences rather than feel deeply about them. That would be cheating yourself from living a full life, which means experiencing all your emotions and neither denying nor dwelling on them.

Mourning need not be excruciatingly painful. You can feel regretful, wistful, or accepting while sad. It’s as important to think about the lowlights in our lives as the highlights. They all make us, well, uniquely us and deserve our attention and self-compassion.