The loneliness of hidden grief

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

tornado touching down on open ground with storm clouds in the background
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Grief is a lonely business. It's just part of its nature.

Even when we grieve with others who share the same loss, their grief is not like ours because their loss is not like ours. Our relationship to the person (or situation or place or thing or dream) is different than the relationship we are mourning, so the loss is not the same even when it seems to be.

And that's even before we mix in all of our personal differences on how we experience that grief—from our unique histories, personalities, and outlooks on life to the fears, values, priorities, and beliefs that shape us and our understanding (and experience) of a given loss.

But as lonely as grief always is, there are some griefs that are even lonelier yet when the loss is not one that is seen or acknowledged by the world around us. There are no rituals or traditions or Hallmark cards to mark these kinds of losses, and so we walk those paths through grief even more alone.

Hidden losses

Sometimes our hidden losses are things we simply choose not to share with others.

An early miscarriage before anyone even knew we were pregnant. The ending of a romance that was still in early enough stages that we hadn't yet shared it with the world. A failure to meet a private goal that no one else knew we were trying for. The sharp disappointment of learning that we are not who we thought we were (or that someone close to us is not who we thought they were).

Other times those losses may be able to be seen publicly, but our culture has no way of marking or honoring them.

The loss of a deeply meaningful friendship. The decline of our own or a loved one's mental, emotional, or physical health. The loss of a job. The ending of a marriage. The loss of a sense of personal safety that comes from experiencing a crime, accident, or other trauma. The loss of reputation that comes from a public mistake.

Let's face it, we have a hard enough time as a culture honoring the grief that stems from death of a loved one, even though we do at least acknowledge that one publicly through the rituals of funerals and memorial services. It's not surprising that we are even less capable of dealing with other griefs.

Hidden grief

Several years ago now when my own world fell apart so spectacularly, it came through a whole series of these hidden griefs.

The unraveling started with the death of my closest friend. By the times the losses slowed a couple of years later, I'd also lost a marriage, step-children, a home, a job, a major educational goal, a career dream, financial security, a new love, and the very foundations of my understanding of myself. In the process, I also lost every close friendship I had, had my faith ripped to shreds, and had to rebuild just about everything I knew about myself and about life from scratch.

While a few of those losses were ones that could be seen publicly, the underlying connections between all of these losses and the profound disintegration of my sense of self and the world around me were invisible to everyone but me.

It was like standing (or more truthfully, cowering) in the center of a tornado filled with shards of broken glass that lacerated every surface of my being, leaving me broken, bruised and bleeding, while everyone else just saw a bit of a stiff breeze.

Perhaps you have gone through a similar time on your own life. Maybe you have encountered your own personal tornado of destruction that left you bleeding from uncountable losses that no one else was able to see or acknowledge, much less understand or support you through.

Grief is hard enough when we have support. Going it alone is as lonely as lonely gets.

Dealing with hidden grief

When I went through this tornado of grief a few years ago, my first instinct was to reach for support anywhere I could find it. With each failure to get that support I sought, my loneliness intensified, and I tumbled even farther into the storm.

It wasn't until I chose to take full control of the grieving process on my own that I began to heal. For me, that meant getting very clear about what I been searching for from others and finding ways to give those things to myself.

The key gifts that I gave myself that helped me turn that corner toward healing were seemingly small ones, but consciously giving them to myself (without waiting to get them from others) made all the difference.

  • Validation. One of the biggest things I kept searching for was someone else to validate the intensity and reality of all of the losses and grief that I was experiencing. When I realized that getting validation from someone else was only a means of getting permission to validate my own experience, I chose to skip the step of getting permission and validate my experience all on my own. It took some conscious repetition, but just this validation in the face of so much misunderstanding eased so much.
  • Space to grieve. Grief takes a lot of mental, emotional, and physical space, and people are unlikely to give us that space when they can't even see our hidden losses and griefs. Choosing to make that space for myself without waiting for permission or understanding gave me what I needed to move through the grief and begin to heal and rebuild. This included focusing on supporting my body with extra sleep, exercise, and good nutrition.
  • Creative expression. Part of moving through the grief process was finding ways to express it, even when there was no one to hear it. That often meant finding other creative ways for me to express it. Writing became of huge part of that expression, but my kintsugi art work also grew out of that time. For others, creative expression might involve dance or drawing or photography or woodworking or sculpting or building something or running or any of dozens of other ways of working out grief.
  • Being present. Often when we grieve, we long for someone else just to be present to us and our grief. In the absence of that, consciously being present to ourselves, being our own witness to our grief, listening to ourselves all work to give more comfort than you might imagine.
  • Selective support. Even with all I was doing alone, I still found it helpful to get support from others, but as I became clearer about what I needed, it was easier to choose where to get that support to ensure that I got what I needed. Sometimes that meant hiring support. Other times it just meant picking and choosing who to talk to about what, knowing that not everyone was equally able to support all needs.

Grief is lonely, and hidden grieving is lonelier still. It always will be. But taking responsibility for knowing what you need and finding ways to meet those needs can ease the journey.

Questions to ponder

What has been most helpful to you in the past when you have been grieving? What do you need most during times like that?

Which of those needs might you be able to find ways to meet for yourself if there is not other support available? What might that look like for you?

If you are in the midst of grieving (especially hidden losses), what is one thing you might try today to support yourself on that journey toward healing?


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