What’s Intangible Loss? Definition + How to Cope


Grief has many different facets. We generally discuss them in terms of the outward manifestation of pain and suffering following the death of a loved one. But there are many different ways that we grieve a loss. Some bereaved individuals inevitably connect the death of a loved one to feelings of profound grief and sorrow. 

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In contrast, others suffer losses linked to the pain and discomfort after experiencing significant changes to their particular lifestyle due to a loss. Suffering not only attaches to a loved one’s death, but it can also connect to the disruptions of our everyday lives.

Whether happy or tragic, life-changing events can contribute to feelings of grief and loss in people of all ages. Loss is a unique experience, and the resulting grief reactions are as individual as the person experiencing them. 

Intangible Loss Defined

Intangible loss is the psychological loss that affects our sense of security, identity, hope for the future, and overall well-being. These are typically secondary losses stemming from other types of loss, such as the death of a loved one.

However, other significant losses such as loss of a limb, loss of home, or losses resulting from a divorce can create secondary intangible losses. Every loss, whether intangible or tangible, has the potential to create different types of grief in a suffering individual.  

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Intangible Loss vs. Tangible Loss

We refer to the losses that we connect to the physical or material as tangible losses. These include the loss of a home, possessions, vehicles, food in our pantry, and financial losses. Things that we can see, feel, and touch, are related to the tangible things we have and sometimes lose due to a natural disaster, divorce, bankruptcy, etc. 

When we suffer losses, we automatically and subconsciously categorize them as tangible or intangible. We tend to have this inner gauge of where our losses fall without having to stop to think about them in terms of tangible or intangible. We know that if we lose our house in a flood or fire, we’ve lost it.

In contrast, when someone we know and love dies, we recognize that as a loss. But, we think of it in terms of losing their physical presence. Only later do we come to terms with the secondary losses resulting from their death such as the loss of the relationship, and no longer seeing them or sharing lives with them. These are intangible losses stemming from the direct physical, tangible loss of their life. 

What Does Intangible Loss Look or Feel Like?

Individuals suffering from intangible loss will exhibit signs of grief related to all types of losses. There aren’t any distinguishing factors in how people who suffer intangible losses grieve over those suffering tangible losses.

Grieving over intangible losses looks and feels similar to any other type of grief. A person can expect to cycle through the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. One loss is not different from the other in how it affects a bereaved person. 

The way someone recovers from intangible loss is similar to recovering from ordinary tangible loss. People affected by grief tend to go through the grieving process anywhere from 6 to 12 months. Within 2 years, they can expect to feel back to normal and resume their lives as before.

Some people, however, will get lost in their grief and will need extra support to work through it. The effects of losing a home, personal possessions, and unique relationships can last a lifetime. Individuals who have difficulty moving past their grief should consider seeking professional counseling.

The longer that grief goes unresolved, the greater the chances of complications developing. Unattended grief may lead to chronic depression and complicated grief. 

Examples of Intangible Loss

Some of the more common grief experiences leading to intangible loss include everyday occurrences such as moving from one city to another, leaving behind your childhood home, getting a divorce, or even suffering from a debilitating illness. Anytime there are significant changes to your life and lifestyle, you risk feeling the effects of grief and loss. 

The divorce affects every member of the family, not just the spouses. When married couples divorce, for example, the intangible losses run deep. Children suffer the intangible loss of no longer having both parents living under the same roof, having to move from their home, and possibly even the school where all their friends go.

The divorcing spouses suffer the intangible losses of status attached to a spouse’s social or financial position, the loss of attachment to their home, and the loss of their spouse’s support. 

The intangible losses are similar during natural disasters such as fire or flooding. However, in these situations, the losses tend to be more permanent due to the destruction of irreplaceable personal items.

A family who’s suffered the loss of a home due to a natural disaster will deal with grief for possibly the rest of their lives because of the nature of their loss. Even if the house was insured, the money doesn’t replace the personal possessions and memories that it stored. 

In a debilitating illness or accident, the person affected will suffer through the intangible loss of possibly not having their health restored, losing their faculties or cognitive function, or the ability to resume life as before. These losses are very much real and contribute to feelings of depression, grief, and loss. A suffering individual suffering this type of loss will likely suffer through low self-worth and low self-esteem.

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How to Deal With Intangible Loss

Dealing with grief of any kind takes time, compassion, and patience. Although grief is cyclical, it doesn't typically follow a linear path. Grief-related feelings and emotions ebb and flow for several months after experiencing a loss. 

The way to deal with these changed and often negative emotions is to take the time to process what you’re feeling, recognize the root causes of your grief, and learn to let go and start over. The process isn’t easy for most people, but with time, you’ll start to feel better, and your life will start evolving into something different.

Get in touch with your support group

When we suffer through life-changing events that leave us traumatized, the natural reaction is to withdraw from our lives to try to get a handle on things. Although it feels natural to want to hide out from everyone and everything, this is more damaging to you than facing the circumstances of your loss.

Reach out to those you love and trust whenever you need extra love and support or someone to talk to about your feelings. Sometimes all we need is someone to talk to, shed new light on our situation, and help us figure out our next steps. 

Understand your loss

Self-reflection is a crucial component to understanding your loss. Although the physical loss is easy to identify, you may have issues determining why you’re experiencing specific grief reactions. Dealing with intangible loss requires you to look within to heal from the pain and discomfort associated with your loss. To better understand what you’re experiencing, consider getting professional help, reading books about grief, or joining a support group.

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Grieve your loss

Allow yourself adequate time to process and grieve your loss, and take some time to sit with your grief before making any significant decisions. If you’ve had to move out of your home, be patient and look for a new place before rushing out to replace what you had. You might find that the area where you live no longer suits you, and it’s time to move on to somewhere new.  

Commemorate your loss

Commemorating an intangible loss is part of grief and loss activities that help you heal. Commemoration means taking the time to reflect on what you once had, being grateful for the time you had it, and cherishing its memories. Find ways to honor the past while looking for ways to move forward from your grief. 

Move on

After some time passes, you might decide that it’s time to move on from your loss. Only you’ll know when the right time is for you to leave your grief behind. Typically, you can expect to mourn your loss for a few months before you start to feel better. Moving on is part of what grief counseling teaches the bereaved. Deciding to move on isn’t the same as ignoring your grief or failing to acknowledge your experiences.

Grieving Intangible Losses

All losses create grief in individuals coping with sudden or unexpected changes in their lives. Grief is how we express our feelings of pain and sorrow that eventually heal and move forward. Without allowing the grieving process to take shape, we stifle the journey toward healing. 

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