Grief experts reveal a new word for social loss — and 3 strategies to heal
“Although crisis situations are disruptive and traumatic, they also provide an opportunity for change.”
If you take the “Death and Dying” course at Washington State University, you will have to complete an assignment called a “lossography.” It’s a writing exercise where students reflect on the earliest loss or death they can remember experiencing and their most significant loss or death experience. Their narratives are anonymized and given to the entire class to read. It’s a practice designed to reveal our shared humanity, explains assistant professor Raven Weaver, who teaches the class.
When Covid-19 swept the world, the assignment changed, too. Students were asked to reflect on the pandemic and the losses they experienced. A few wrote about deaths, but many more recounted losing educational and social experiences. They were grieving these social losses, even if the students felt like they couldn’t quite rightly describe their response as grief in the traditional sense.
In a paper released in the journal Death Studies, Weaver and colleagues describe these losses as “shadowlosses,” a term coined by thanatologist Cole Imperi. Shadowloss describes the experience of loss in life, not of life.
“These types of losses are substantial and pervasive,” says Weaver. “Yet, too often, these types of losses are not socially acknowledged, which may deprive individuals of receiving adequate support and opportunity to adapt to change.”
While shadowloss is a new word created to help people better describe a shared experience, academics have long observed that non-death losses can result in grief — and that many do not feel entitled to this grief. In some instances, this is called disenfranchised grief. The loss is not openly acknowledged and viewed outside societal grieving rules.
But Covid-19’s effect on society could be driving a normalization of grief linked to non-death losses. It’s at least pushing the conversation forward. While different actions can help a person manage their grief, acknowledging that the response is grief is a valuable place to start.
What is grief?
Grief is not an emotion, explains Heather Servaty-Seib. It is a multi-dimensional response to loss. It is emotional — sadness, anger, and other feelings can be attached to grief. Grief also affects the brain and body, potentially leading to confusion and physical pain. It can vary across time and cultures. For many people, grief is spiritual.
Servaty-Seib is a professor at Purdue University, where she leads the grief and loss research team. She describes grief as a passive response — you don’t get to pick how you grieve. Mourning, on the other hand, is active. It is the attempt to cope with the grief and the loss.
“There is something validating and freeing about identifying the losses.”
One of the subjects her team examines is how grieving people address the challenges associated with non-death losses. They developed the Perceived Impact of Live Events Scale, a framework for understanding the gains and losses linked to a significant life event. While society often frames experiences as completely desirable or undesirable — for example, a wedding or a divorce — most significant life events involve losses and gains.
Servaty-Seib views Covid-19 as “a quintessential example” of an experience that led to so many losses — a loss of structure, a loss of feeling safe — but some gains too. Some people learned they could cope with something exceptionally challenging. The quality of some friendships improved.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, identifying losses and recognizing that what you’re experiencing is grief can help you endure. People who experience a non-death loss can feel as if they don’t have the right to grieve. Often, after Servaty-Seib gives a lecture on this topic, people will come to her and say they finally understand why they were so affected by a situation. They didn’t realize all they had lost.
“There is something validating and freeing about identifying the losses,” Servaty-Seib explains. “It can help people make sense of their confusion about their response.”
At the same time, entertaining the idea that awful experiences can result in some gains — without veering toward toxic positivity — can also help with managing grief, Servaty-Seib explains.
“It takes time and reflection,” she says. “But the process of identifying some of those gains can be an act of mourning and an attempt to cope with grief.”
Coping with loss
When dealing with grief, a critical action to avoid is comparing your reaction to another’s. Each person with have a unique perception of loss and gains, even if these relate to the same life event, Servaty-Seib says.
“What we know about grief is that when there’s judgment — when there are rigid expectations about what grief must look like — this creates a meta-level of added difficulty for people,” she says. “If they were allowed to experience what they need to experience, they would do much better.”
A shadowloss could be an unexpected firing or estrangement. It could be leaving a religious community or losing your home. It could be an injury, ending your career as a student-athlete. All of these experiences can result in grief. And in every case, that grief is valid.
Recognizing, acknowledging, and processing loss in its many forms allows people to make sense of their experience and move forward — not from — the loss, says Weaver. When she analyzed her students' narratives about pandemic losses, several approaches to coping emerged. They found they could adjust their expectations; they could rely on their friends and family for support. It was helpful to speak to others and acknowledge the collective experience of loss.
“Although crisis situations are disruptive and traumatic, they also provide an opportunity for change,” Weaver says.
Accordingly, people experiencing loss may want to consider:
- Identifying the new opportunities that emerged during challenging times
- Strengthening their sense of connection to others
- Recognizing their resiliency
“The pandemic ushered in unprecedented challenges for people of all ages and affected individuals, families, communities, and societies,” Weaver says. “Even if the Covid-19 pandemic is subsiding, there’s a grief pandemic for which we have no timeline.”
This grief will encompass the many lives lost and other losses that transpired. Weaver notes that understanding how individuals cope, respond and adapt to loss is essential for establishing evidenced-based interventions and policies to support the bereaved. But she also says there are foundational steps that can be taken by everyone and do a lot of good: becoming more comfortable talking about loss with others and learning how to be more compassionate — and self-compassionate.