5 Kinds of Grief Society Doesn't Acknowledge

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When I was 19, I was diagnosed with an incurable degenerative retinal disease, which was about as fun as it sounds. After meeting with a succession of capable but cold specialists, I found Dr. Jacobson, whose compassion was as uncommon as his brilliance. He had to administer the same awful tests his colleagues had, involving electrodes on eyeballs, but unlike the rest, he offered to play my favorite music while he did it. What helped more than the music was the knowledge that this doctor thought of me as a person rather than a collection of damaged cells.

I’ve seen him every year for more than two decades. Over the years, we’ve talked about Philly cheesesteaks and our mutual love of Shakespeare and his revolutionary research, which I was confident would unlock a way to help my failing vision.

And then, a few weeks ago, I found out he’d died. As I reeled from this news, I struggled to communicate the nature of the loss to those around me. I knew it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t know him well. I didn’t know the names of his kids, or how he liked his eggs cooked. But I’d loved him all the same. I’d trusted him to take care of my failing eyes, but in the process, he’d taken care of far more than just that.

So I sobbed as I read and reread the announcement of his death, and when my daughter asked why I was crying, I told her, “My doctor died. And he was really, really important to me.” I don’t know if she understood, but she didn’t need to. She put her arms around me, and it helped.

There are as many kinds of grief as there are people who grieve—and these sorrows don’t only happen after a loved one dies. Our lives are full of other kinds of crushing losses. The unsuccessful fertility treatment you can’t afford to repeat. The novel you spent years writing that never got published. Leaving a beloved community that you called home.

“Grief is the pain that arises when a future we once counted on is no longer available to us,” says Marisa Renee Lee, grief advocate and author of Grief Is Love, “whether it is because of the death of someone you hold dear, a divorce, an infertility diagnosis, or an unexpected disability.”

But because society often doesn’t recognize these instances of grief, people don’t believe they’re entitled to the sorrow they experience, says psychotherapist Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK. And that—spoiler alert—is a problem. “It’s not in our best interests to pretend things don’t hurt when they hurt,” says Devine. “If we don’t find a way to process the feelings, to name them, they’re going to come out sideways, find other ways to speak.”

The first order of business then, is: Let the grief speak. To that end, we’re amplifying six under-discussed sources of sorrow that demand to be felt and shared.

1. A failed IVF treatment

I have a friend, Toby, who struggled for years to get pregnant. She did eight rounds of IVF, and every failed cycle was like a death, she said, to the point that her husband wanted to stop trying because it was so painful to watch her suffer so intensely. She said it was like a bomb going off in her life. And yet, her grief was all but invisible; she didn’t talk about it with people besides her closest friends. It’s what she regrets most about the experience, because it robbed her of the support system she desperately needed.

Eventually, she had a baby, who is now a delightfully precocious preschooler. But though my friend is now a mom, she says infertility is a part of her personal identity forever. It’s shaped who she is. “The media represents grief as a short-lived emotional experience, which won’t disrupt your life for very long if you do it right,” says Devine. “But grief is not a linear, logical process. There’s no finish line.”

2. Creative failure

The movie you spent two years editing that didn’t go anywhere. The series of oil paintings stacked up against your wall that have never been shown. Anyone who has ever seriously attempted a creative enterprise has experienced some form of creative failure, and the sense of loss you feel is proportional to the amount of blood, sweat, and tears you poured into it. What makes it even tougher is this: To make art, you have to remove your protective armor and bare your heart and soul—which makes the pain of rejection all the more acute.

This kind of loss falls under the category of “death of a dream”—except that there’s nothing wispy or whimsical about this dream. This is a goal you’ve devoted countless hours and countless dollars to achieve. “These losses are real and valid and devastating in their own ways,” says Devine. Her advice for dealing with them: Don’t underestimate the power of acknowledgement. “Our gut impulse is to minimize it,” she says. “But just the act of saying ‘Ouch!’ is a really powerful action step.”

3. A kid leaves the nest

I expected the tears that came at the airport after I left my son in a badly lit dorm room 1,016 miles from home. What I didn’t expect were the tears that came at other times. When I passed his favorite food truck and thought of picking him up a taco el pastor. When I found the capo for his guitar behind the couch.

My friend Liza says the sadness would spring up out of nowhere when Jeopardy! came on and she’d hear a question she knew her son would know the answer to. Another friend describes it not so much as sadness but as the feeling of forgetting something, a weird sensation of something always being missing.

In moments like these, Devine says, distraction can be helpful. “It often gets a bad rap, but distraction can be a healthy coping tool,” she says, explaining that it only becomes problematic when we use it on a continual basis in order to keep dodging uncomfortable emotions. “It’s not a long-term strategy,” says Devine. “But when your emotions feel too overwhelming, it’s a way to give yourself a break.”

4. Loss of a beloved neighborhood

There are all kinds of reasons people lose their neighborhoods, from natural disasters to gentrification. Sometimes the neighborhood is still there, only you’re not in it. This kind of displacement can trigger a complicated flood of feeling, fed by many tributaries of missing. You miss the people you’ve left behind—not just the friends but the grumpy crossing guard who helped shepherd your little ones to school, the spacey barista, the proprietor of the pizza place that wasn’t even that good but stayed open late. Often, what you miss most is who you were when you lived there.

I have a friend, Kate, who was living in a tiny New York City apartment that started to feel less like a shoebox and more like a shoe as she grew her family. When she moved into a bigger apartment in another area, she mourned the chapter of her life she was closing by leaving the place where so many important things had happened to her. Whenever she passes through, it hits her, what she describes as a longing, a nostalgia for a time in her life that’s passed.

Devine’s advice for moments like these is to gaze within. “We often look for external guidance to tell us how to deal with challenging things in our lives,” she says. “But there’s a lot you already know.” One helpful exercise is to “interview” your grief. Take two pens of different colors: One color is you, and the other is your grief. Ask your grief, “What do you want me to know? What do you need from me?” And see what unspools.

You may not always find an answer through this dialogue, says Devine, but you’ll always get a response, which can help you through.

5. The end of travel soccer

When your kid is involved in an all-consuming activity like travel soccer, or a youth chorus or a competitive jazz team, you get sucked in, too. You cheer and applaud at endless games and recitals and competitions, no matter how crappy the weather or boring the performance. You befriend the other families, even when you think you have nothing in common. Your heart breaks with your child’s at every disappointment and soars at every victory. And you schlep. You schlep with cleats and jazz shoes and choral robes.

And then, suddenly, it’s over. Kids start different schools and peel off. You realize you’ve watched your child make her last goal, or do her last pirouette, because, no, she isn’t going pro. The more space the activity took up in your life, the bigger a hole it leaves when—poof—it’s gone.

There’s no perfect-sized plug for the hole, says Lee, but treating yourself with compassion will assuage the ache. “Giving yourself permission to grieve and treating yourself with kindness are some of the only things that really do help,” says Lee. Devine agrees: “Everyday life is full of grief that we don’t call grief, and all of it deserves love and care and attention and support.”

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