Masked Grief: Definition, Examples & How It Works

Certified Grief Counselor

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Every person has their way of coping with loss, death, and bereavement. Whether they choose to accept their loss or suppress their emotions is what determines their level of success in effectively dealing with their grief.

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In situations where a person suffering loss has mastered the art of suppressing their emotional pain, they've chosen not to accept their suffering as part of their loss. This is often referred to as "masked grief" and is a type of complicated grief requiring special attention to successfully go through the stages of grief toward healing. 

Not everyone suffering loss understands the reasons why they feel the way they do and may turn to grief books to try to make sense of things. It may be that their masked grief is not a result of them not wanting to accept their suffering as part of their loss, but that they’re confused and don’t understand what’s happening to them emotionally.

In both cases, they may require some additional help to address their grief and move toward successful healing. If you’re curious about masked grief or know of someone suffering similarly, read ahead to learn more.

Masked Grief Defined

Masked grief is where your body reacts to grief in ways that impair your normal day-to-day functioning, but where you’re unable to recognize the link between your behavior and your grief. Most manifestations come in the form of physical ailments and abnormal behaviors not typically associated with a grieving person.

When choosing to ignore or set aside your feelings related to a traumatic event in your life, you create a situation where your health suffers in other ways as a direct result of denying these emotions. 

Suppressed grief turns into masked grief, which turns into other health issues where grief symptoms are often hidden or present as other types of physical symptoms. A person seeking relief from these symptoms will generally complain of things such as headaches, heartburn, sleep deprivation, and other general maladies.

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How Does Masked Grief Work?

Masked grief works much the same as other types of complicated grief. The first part of addressing this type of grief is finding acceptance or coming to terms with your loss. You will have to go through the stages of grief in your unique way until you find a way to cope with your loss and can move forward with your life.

When trying to find ways of coping with your grief, it's important to take into consideration the type of grief you are experiencing, the nature and source of our emotions, your cultural norms and grief rituals, along with your unique past life experiences.

From there, you should expect to go through the following stages as you work through your grief.

Denial

The first stage of grief to work through is the denial stage. When you're in denial, it's a natural response to coping with your loss. Denial is linked to the initial shock and disbelief associated with first getting the news of a tragedy or the death of a loved one. This is your body's way of coping and making it through this traumatic event. 

Once the news starts to sink in and you begin to understand everything that happened and why your mind is better able to handle your loss. You then start accepting your feelings and emotions associated with your pain and suffering.

When dealing with masked grief, this denial stage is not so clear cut. You'll have to first work through pinpointing the source of your emotional and physical manifestations before working through your denial.

Anger

When your grief is masked, you experience symptoms that aren't normally a part of the ordinary grieving process. Your feelings and reactions may manifest in ways that are not readily linked to the grief process. For example, with ordinary grief, it’s completely normal to feel anger toward your loved one who has died, or toward yourself for feeling as if you could have done more to keep your loved one from dying.

With masked grief, you may be feeling angry and wanting to lash out to your loved ones without really understanding why you're feeling this way. You have yet to process the link between why you’re feeling the way that you are and the loss that you’ve suffered. 

Bargaining

The bargaining stage of grief is where you start making deals with everyone that has anything to do with your loved one's pain and suffering, or ultimately with their death. This includes hospital staff, nurses, doctors, the person in the bed next to them, yourself, God, the cleaning lady, and the universe. 

When dealing with masked grief, before you can get to this bargaining stage you’ll have to first accept the event of your loss, deal with your anger and other emotions you may be feeling, all before getting to the bargaining stage in the process.

Even though with normal grief you can expect to jump from one stage to the next in no particular order, masked grief forces you to accept and process your loss before you can begin to bargain. It’s nearly impossible to reach the bargaining stage without first accepting your loss as the source of your emotions and behavior. 

Depression

As with most grief, depression is a normal part of the healing process. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed with emotion and to feel that you just can’t continue with life after suffering the loss of your loved one. It’s completely normal to feel this way.

But, if you continue to feel depressed after a few months have passed — typically six to 12—you may want to seek the help of a professional grief counselor to help you get past your depression. If left untreated, simple depression due to loss can potentially turn into a more complicated form of depression that is more difficult to treat. 

Acceptance

Finding acceptance of your loss is associated with all types of grief in the healing process. It is the last stage of the five stages of grief, but is also the first stage in dealing with complicated or masked grief. It’s a bit of a challenge trying to pinpoint the source of your grief when considering that masked grief is just that — it presents as one thing masked as another.

It’s up to both you and your mental health care provider to figure out how to best reach this level of acceptance that will propel you toward healing from your loss. Without first accepting your loss and the source of your grief, it’s difficult to put an end to your grief and sorrow. 

Examples of Masked Grief

There are many reasons why people choose to cover up or hide their grief. Some of the most common reasons for doing so revolve around suffering a traumatic event that no one else can know about. For example:

Mourning the loss of a paramour

For someone who is married and carrying on an extramarital affair, it may not be socially acceptable to openly mourn the loss of their lover. Most of these relationships are hidden from their spouse, friends, and family. When the lover dies, the survivor finds it difficult to find the support and encouragement needed to move forward from their loss.

Most people wouldn’t know how to console someone in this situation. Their hidden or masked grief can potentially cause them to suffer in other ways. Most of the time this grief presents as irritability and anger directed at the spouse. 

Suffering through the loss of a job

When the breadwinner or head of the household suddenly and unexpectedly loses their job or means of financially supporting the family, they typically suffer in silence carrying on with their day-to-day as though they were still employed. Men tend to feel the need to hide their job loss more so than women, and they suffer in silence hoping to find another job quickly.

In these situations, the person suffering loss may start feeling the effects of their loss by displaying acts of aggression towards others, but may not understand that the way they are feeling is directly related to the traumatic event suffered.

Causing the death of someone

In extreme cases, when a person secretly causes the death of another and is hiding their involvement, it not only adds stress and anxiety to their suffering, but it can cause many other related health issues to manifest. Take a mother, for example, who left her child unattended while she scrolled through social media, and the child ends up drowning in the family pool. 

She may already feel guilty that she was distracted and caused the child’s death. But when you factor in that she may be keeping it a secret that she was inattentive, this hidden grief causes other types of physical manifestations such as extreme weight loss, hair loss, or severe skin reactions. When seeking treatment, her masked grief prevents the therapist from fully exploring effective treatment options. 

How Hidden Grief Gets Masked

No one ever completely gets over their loss. It doesn’t matter if the type of grief they experience is normal, anticipated, or masked and complicated. Everyone can learn to heal and live with loss once they accept it. Grief is just an emotional response to loss.

With time, patience, love, and support, you can also get through your grief and learn to live life in your new reality.

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