Not all grief is the same. Turns out there are at least eight different forms. The distinctions help us understand subtle differences and anticipate when they will show up. Mourning is multi-faceted.
Each will be described in alphabetical order, along with an example. (These generalities may not apply to children, people born outside the United States, or adults with severe learning impairments.)
Absent or Delayed Grief
Here there are few outward signs of bereavement. There’s a lack of preoccupation, anger, tears and despondency. The person seems numb. They may be accused of being indifferent or assumed to be profoundly depressed.
Absent grief is common immediately following a death notification when the person is in shock. One can also expect this during formal police investigations and especially during court proceedings where people are ordered to be on their best behavior and careful even outside the courtroom.
In these special circumstances, the survivor keeps their reactions at bay. They may not even be aware they’re doing it. This holding pattern can go on for years. If so, they may pay a price physically.
In almost all cases, once the investigation or trial is over the person soon yields to common grief reactions.
An example was a man I met who lost his daughter in the Parkland mass school shooting. It took three long years for the case to finally get underway. By then he’d grown accustomed to thinking about nothing but the next motion, hearing or ruling. The trial took three grueling months. Everyone regarded him as strong, if not stoic. He and the other parents were repeatedly told to show no emotion in court and outside in public lest it lead to a mistrial. Toward the conclusion of the trial he showed signs of heart trouble and was hospitalized for three days.
After the guilty verdict, the shooter was given life without parole. It was then that the father had a chance to address the court with his victim impact statement. Later that evening he succumbed to intense grief for the first time without hesitation. It was necessary and normal – just delayed.
This unusual kind of grief develops when there is a lack of clarity about a death. It is common in cold-case homicides. The loved one has not been declared dead but remains out of reach. Like disenfranchised grief, people with ambiguous grief are often encouraged to be positive and to keep searching. That keeps them in limbo and can make them feel guilty for grieving.
Alejandro raised his younger brother, Tomas, since they were barely in their teens. They ran with a rough crowd in Loredo, Texas. In late October of 2020 Tomas failed to return. It was not unusual for him to be gone for a week, but never longer. Tomas had mentioned he’d always wanted to live in Encinitas, California. So, Alejandro thought he moved there but still expected contact. Alejandro eventually learned that Tomas’ phone had not been used since November of 2020 and the license plates on his truck had expired in early 2021. Today Alejandro lives in limbo. He searches for answers. He waits. He wonders.
Here people mourn before the death. It’s often seen in visitors to the bedside in a hospital trauma unit. They use past-tense terms such as “She was always a good mom” or “He could fix anything.”
Other visitors or medical personnel may judge the visitor as being morbid or pessimistic and encourage them to have hope and stay positive.
Rosa M. had anticipatory grief. She was the mom of twin boys. Her husband of many years was shot in the parking lot at work at 11 pm. at shift change. Police ruled it a case of mistaken identity. He was airlifted to the nearest trauma unit in grave condition. He survived the surgery – barely.
Rosa was at her husband’s bedside every moment she was allowed to do so. He was in a coma, then had seizures and developed heart arrhythmia. By 8:30 that evening his extremities grew cold and she “knew” he would not survive the night. Rosa developed strong grief before he was pronounced dead the following afternoon at 1:26 pm.
You may not have heard the term, but it’s likely you have experienced this form of grief. Collective grief happens when a large group responds to the same loss. It happened after WWII, after 911 and during COVID.
Collective grief is also common in tightly knit organizations such as the Red Cross, the military, law enforcement, among EMS personnel and other first responders.
Any historical account of a community-wide disaster will reveal collective grief (such as the school Massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas). One benefit is the likelihood of mutual support. People don’t feel alone in their loss.
Earlier this year Lahaina on Maui Island in Hawaii sustained deadly wildfires worsened by Hurricane Dora. Thousands of homes, cars, pets and businesses were destroyed along with 115 identified victims of the fire. There were many left with serious burns and countless cases of PTSD. Maui Police Chief reported in August that “hundreds are unaccounted for.” Almost 6 billion dollars was allocated to alleviate the misery. Volunteers flooded in as soon as they could.
Saane and Kevin Tanaka lost their children and seven-year-old nephew in the devastation. Nonetheless, they sheltered 19 additional family members who were able to evacuate in time. They collectively battled grief.
Complicated or Traumatic Grief
This form of grief is defined by two behaviors. One is that it lasts much longer than expected or gets worse. Second, serious complications show up – such as substance abuse, combativeness, job failure, agoraphobia, health problems, failure to meet financial obligations, severe preoccupation with the death and even hoarding.
Keep in mind that the notion of “too much time passing” is subjective. There are wide differences within religions and cultures as to how long grief “should” last. There is no universal yardstick.
Hoarding is marked by an obsessive need to accumulate items even if they’re worthless, hazardous or unsanitary. It’s not unusual for the property to become condemned, which brings the unsafe and compulsive trend to a halt. Hoarders often refer to themselves as “collectors.”
Gretta Fern-Ozee, a former beauty shop operator and professional gambler, had spent her life caring for others. She was a lifelong resident of Texas. Gretta became a caregiver to her previous husbands who died after their long illnesses. She also cared for her father after his heart surgery and her mother who she was especially close to. Her life narrowed from then on.
Gretta’s primary joy in her last years was “opening up a box with something new or shiny.” Her modest home overflowed with yard ornaments, bird houses, artificial flowers, statues, costume jewelry, clothes, stuffed animals, devices for foot and leg pain, makeup, hats, photographs, perfumes and other assorted items. Though she was a gracious woman she was left without a place for anyone to sit if she had a visitor. Like many hoarders, she needed to “hold on to” something after a loss and keep people distant.
This grief is less well known though I suspect it’s common. As the name implies, there is tension in the grief. Conflicted grief stems from the death of someone who brought hardship to the survivor. The relief triggers guilt. Perhaps the deceased gaslighted them or ruined them financially or were unfaithful.
My husband did all three.
So, the homicide brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, there are the usual signs of grief. But there is also relief, a feeling of “Glad they can’t hurt me or anyone else anymore.”
Dale S. was the kind of guy who could lie with ease, with conviction. He promised to cease his drug abuse many times in the preceding decade and allowed his next of kin to pay for his rehabilitation four times – at their own financial peril. He never stayed abstinent for long.
Dale was a mean drunk and meth made him paranoid. He began to carry a weapon and brandish it from time to time. His insight, judgment and self-control became depleted. The month before his murder he stole and pawned his elderly parents’ vintage 40-piece Reed and Barton silver flatware collection given to them by his grandparents at their wedding. It was crafted in 1906 and valued at over $2,000 but priceless in terms of its history.
After Dale’s father accused him of theft, Dale backhanded him. The 79-year-old fell back into his chair with a bloody lip and a broken heart. His devoted Chihuahua tried to bite Dale’s ankle but was kicked to the side. Dale threatened more harm if his father ever brought it up again. When Dale was murdered five weeks later in Baltimore, his parents grieved but also felt relief that he was gone from their lives.
Cumulative (Sequential) Grief
When back-to-back losses occur, a survivor doesn’t have time to process one loss before another happens. It’s more commonly associated with the elderly but can happen after a mass homicide too, as well as in war and natural disasters.
Not all victims of 911 died the day of the attack. Many more lingered for days, weeks and years with debilitating injuries caused by the fires, falls, and flying debris. Twenty percent of Americans knew someone hurt or killed in the mass terrorist assault.
This uncommon term applies to people whose grief is not validated by society at large or the people around them. They’re not viewed as being “legitimately” impacted. Disenfranchised grief is commonly experienced by former spouses, friends, in-laws and coworkers. They’re demoted to the back row literally and figuratively. The irony is, that friends of the deceased may be closer to the homicide victim than his or her blood relatives.
Teresa M. shared parenting with her divorced spouse after their decade-long marriage ended. Their parting was reasonably smooth and their daughter, age 7, was doing well. He remarried three years later. Teresa did not. They were unified in their efforts to remain parents and agreed not to move until their daughter reached age 18. They had few disagreements over visitation.
One year after his remarriage, Teresa’s former husband was killed in a bank robbery near Seattle in 2008. Teresa suffered not only from the loss, but the lack of validity afforded her for the loss. She was expected to sit at the back of the funeral service, was not invited to the graveside ceremony, was not allowed to see him in the emergency room at Harborview Hospital, and did not receive one sympathy card, phone call or text except from her two close friends. Her grief was nullified.
Grief from murder takes many forms. People within a household may well behave differently and at different paces. There’s plenty of room for misunderstandings and judgment. But a little understanding goes a long way. There are few rights and wrongs when it comes to the hard work of grieving.
While no two people, even in similar circumstances, grieve identically, there are commonalities among situations. It can be helpful to pin a descriptor, a label, on the kind of grief someone is undergoing if for no other reason than to identify the stressor and know they aren’t alone.