I absolutely love words. The thing I love most about words is that when we put language to something, it brings clarity and certainty about the thing. Part of what makes grief so hard in our culture is that we do not have a diverse range of common language around it. In fact, the word itself may not bring up a clear definition for you.
Today I want to wrap some language around grief and experiences closely related to it. This may read a bit like a dictionary, but my hope is that the format makes it an easy reference for you in the future. Let’s start with the most obvious word.
Grief– This is the full being experience a person goes through after loss. This often includes many of the unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, and fear. These emotions are felt throughout the entire body and can affect normal bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, and digestion. Grief often occupies a lot of mind space (especially in the beginning) as a person rehearses the past with the lost person, or tries to imaging a future without them. The mind is also often consumed with the change in logistics the loss brings. The mind will often handle things very irrationally at first, but can work towards rational thought with the help of others and the decrease in emotional intensity.
Ambiguous Grief– is the experience of losing something that never was or is simply intangible or indescribable. Ambiguous grief can accompany any grief. It is different than the loss of a future/dream. This is hard to even wrap words around it because the loss is simply unidentifiable. This is what makes ambiguous grief so hard to understand and so potentially harmful. You know you have ambiguous grief when you experience the feeling that there is just a missing puzzle piece, and you’re not sure you will ever know what it was. It manifests itself by being emotionally triggered, usually by something unexpected. It can be very frustrating because the root cause of why you were triggered is rarely identifiable.
Loss of a future/dream— is when you come to the realization that a dream will never be a reality. This may be through choices you’ve made, or circumstances outside of your control. Both deserve to be recognized as grief. There is an intangible part to this since it is an unrealized future. It is different from ambiguous grief in that the lost dream can be identified and described. Naming what you were hoping for and all the things you thought it would bring with it will help you identify what to mourn. This will also point you to what might trigger your grief emotions.
I hope that by giving definition and language to grief, we can learn to recognize it better. Grief lasts way longer than our hustle and bustle society would like for it to. It may be a year after a loss, and still driving by that place make you teary-eyed. That’s okay. You are not alone. My hope is that more common language around the subject will help us be able to tell the story of our grief better while it’s happening in the moment. You are not alone.