What’s Absent Grief? And How Does It Work?

Updated

Grieving is a part of the human condition. We can be sad, despondent, and listless after the death of a loved one. However, there’s also people who may not experience the same pain. They may not feel anything at all. It may even be absent.

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Absent grief is defined as a form of complicated grief where you don’t feel the normal pain and sadness associated with suffering. With absent grief, the stages of grief may never manifest. You might suppress your emotions (consciously or subconsciously) that are ordinary after suffering a loss. 

When this happens, you can suffer a minor loss causing these suppressed emotions to surface when least expected. The most insignificant losses can trigger this flow of emotions that you've bottled up inside as a result. Absent grief can present itself in the form of numbness and disbelief that the loss has occurred, or it can present as resilience.

This type of resilience can develop when someone experiencing loss feels sad but chooses to suppress or ignore these emotions and move forward with life.

What is Absent Grief?

A famous contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Helen Deutsch, introduced the concept of absent grief in her research paper “Absence of Grief” in 1937. She further explored the grieving process by studying and linking childhood losses with the emotional difficulties faced by adults later on in their lives. I

n particular, Deutsch focused on the prolonged absence of grieving in adults. Her reported observations led to the conclusion that the absence of grief in individuals who suffered a great loss led to subsequent delayed displays of emotion in the grieving process.

In everyday scenarios, this type of grief happens when you fail to accept or acknowledge the loss you have suffered. There are some people who believe they need to lead a family through the end-of-life process or be the pillar that their loved ones can rely on. It’s typical to suppress emotions during this time as you may feel the need to be the strong one in your family. 

However, it does not mean that you aren’t grieving or suffering. It only means that you have capped those emotions and are waiting for a more convenient time to grieve.

Is absent grief the same as complicated grief?

Absent grief is a form of complicated grief, but it’s only a small fraction of the overall ways in which we grieve that are considered to be “complicated.” What complicates things in this type of grieving is that you don’t follow a “normal” grieving process as you go through the grief rituals associated with the death of your loved one. 

Instead, you ignore or suppress your feelings at the time of loss, which complicates things further down the line. You may not immediately feel the consequences of suppressing your emotions because you may be more involved with consoling someone else during their grief that you put your own feelings aside.

What ends up happening is that when it’s least expected — weeks, months, or even years down the line — you have an emotional breakdown that you can’t make sense of. It’s most likely that you won’t know that the root of your despair links back to this particular loss where you didn’t allow yourself to properly grieve.

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How Does Absent Grief Work?

Absent grief when properly identified, is treated using the “four tasks of mourning” model, which is also used in treating other types of complicated grief. These four tasks include the following: 

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Processing your grief and pain
  • Adjusting to your new reality without your loved one in it and
  • Finding a way to move forward with life. 

Acceptance

The first task of mourning, according to J.W. Worden, who modeled this way of treating complicated grief, is finding acceptance of your loss. When someone exhibits absent grief, they may have not accepted the death of their loved one, or the fact that their life is no longer the same as it was before their loss. 

If you are dealing with absent grief, you may find yourself carrying on with your day-to-day activities as if your loved one was still there. This may include setting out an extra dinner plate for them, keeping their bedroom the same as it was before their death, or refusing to clean out their things.

When you fail to accept the death of your loved one, you delay the grieving process. You can’t move toward healing without first accepting your loss. In easier terms, you cannot fix that which you don’t see as broken. The moment you accept that things aren’t the same and that you’ve suffered an irreversible loss, that is when you can move toward healing. 

Work through the pain of grief

Once you find acceptance and that your life is no longer the same, this is when you can begin to process your grief. You may need to have a support system in place to help you through these rough patches.

Most of us aren’t trained grief counselors, and don’t know how to move from one stage to the next in the grieving process. We may not even know that they exist, so how can we effectively move toward healing when we don’t even know the stages that we’re “supposed” to go through? 

There are plenty of books on grief that further explain the stages of grief and what to expect in each. You may consider reading to understand what is happening to you. If this is still not enough, consider seeking professional help.  

Adjusting to your new reality

As you learn and grow from your suffering, understand that you’ll eventually begin to adjust to your new life without your loved one in it. It doesn’t mean that you have to let go of their memory, or that you have to stop loving them. You can absolutely continue the bond with your loved one even after death.

For now, the most important thing is learning to adjust to your new role in life. You may have to adjust to no longer being someone’s parent or partner, perhaps you are no longer a best friend or a little sibling.

Whatever the role you had prior to the death of your loved one, it may no longer be there. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t establish new roles. Figure out where you fit in now that your loved one is gone, and start to rebuild your life in that direction. 

Moving forward

When you’ve worked through your grief to the point of adjusting to your new role in life, then it’s time to move forward. When we talk about “moving forward” it means getting unstuck from the past and finding the emotional strength to continue living your life in a meaningful way. 

In the adjustment stage, it is encouraged to hold onto your loved one’s memory and not have to stop loving them. Well, what exactly does this mean?

It means that you don’t have to feel guilty about finding fulfillment and happiness in your new life. You don’t have to worry about forgetting about your loved one who has died. And, you can absolutely find peace, love, and joy in your new existence as you move forward with life while still honoring their memory.  

Simple things that you can do to incorporate your loved one’s memory into your new life are:

  • Talk out loud to them as if they are still with you
  • Write them a letter every now and then to tell them how you’re doing
  • Light a candle in their honor and set it next to their photograph
  • Say “good morning” to them each day as you wake up
  • Say “goodbye” as you walk out the door and tell them you’ll be back soon

All of these simple everyday rituals will make you feel better. Over time, you may find yourself doing it less and less, and that’s okay, too. It just means that you are healing and adjusting to your new reality. 

Examples of Absent Grief

Some examples of absent grief that may not immediately come to mind may include other types of loss. These losses occur more frequently in our lives but we don’t normally see them as the root of our suffering.

Divorce or breakup

You may not consider going through a divorce or breakup a source of grief. Most people celebrate a divorce, or might even cry over a breakup.

Society may not really look at either as a major loss in life, but we do, in fact, mourn divorces and breakups as losses. 

Loss of an absent parent

Sometimes people expect you to grieve the loss of a parent, but perhaps they were absent in your life or you weren’t that close to them and you just aren’t grieving for them as expected.

Maybe grief hits you later in life when another major life event occurs.

Raising a disabled child

Raising a special needs child takes a lot of emotional strength and physical endurance. You may find your emotions suppressed as you learn to care for your child.

As the years go by, you may find that you also suppressed the grief of losing some of your freedom. 

Coping With Absent Grief 

Absent grief almost always manifests later on in life when least expected. There’s no way to rush the process and you shouldn’t have to. You can start by working on finding acceptance first and ways to cope with your grief before trying to reach a permanent resolution that may never come. 


Sources

  1. Deutsch, Helene, “Absence of Grief,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 6 (1937), 12-22
  2. Helene Deutsch & Edith Jackson (1937) Absence of Grief, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 6:1, 12-22, DOI: 10.1080/21674086.1937.11925307
  3. Worden, J.W. (2002) Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (3rd edition). New York: Springer.

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