Second-Hand Grief: Definition, Examples & How to Deal


The ripple effect of grief is that when our loved ones grieve, we grieve with them and because of them. Seeing those closest to us suffer is a painful experience and one that we want to help them avoid, so we try and take on their grief to ease their suffering.

Feeling the weight of other people's sorrow is natural because we're empathetic beings. The pain of others becomes our pain when we hear their stories of love and loss, even when we've never met the affected individual. 

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When individuals witness the effects of grief on others, they may revisit their past losses, causing old wounds to resurface. These manifestations link to the stages of grief, where cycles of mourning continue for some time until grief's fully resolved. Their suffering will last a lifetime for some people, with traumatic events acting as a trigger of the past.

Definition of Second-Hand Grief

Second-hand grief refers to carrying the burden of another person’s pain and suffering even when their loss has nothing to do with you and doesn’t otherwise affect you. It’s also feeling sympathy and empathy for someone undergoing a tragedy in their life to the point that it begins to affect your feelings and emotions.

Second-hand grief is feeling pain and suffering that isn’t yours, yet you make it your own. It’s taking on someone else’s sorrow as if it were your own.

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What Does Second-Hand Grief Look and Feel Like?

Second-hand grief manifests when your emotional responses to past losses are triggered by the death of someone you didn't know well or when a similar tragedy strikes someone you didn't know at all. These triggering events cause your buried emotions to resurface, returning you to an immense tragedy. These emotional triggers are a natural part of grief and are normal and expected, not something you should feel ashamed of or try and hide. 

Unresolved grief is one of the most common reasons people suffer from second-hand distress, even when there's no indication of ongoing grieving. As you begin to suffer from second-hand grief, you can expect to start feeling the painful emotional symptoms of love and loss following a significant tragedy.

Your grief will look and feel fresh all over again, and you may find yourself going back to a dark place of going through the types of grief you experienced when someone close to you died.

Examples of Second-Hand Grief

Second-hand grief happens in many different types of settings. Healthcare and deathcare workers are more common professions to suffer through second-hand grief. Doctors, nurses, and first responders often deal with trauma every day of their lives.

They often carry the burden of loss with them regardless of how much they try and emotionally distance themselves from their work. Each patient’s death can remind them of personal failures or fill them with empathy for the grief they see in others. 

School teachers and counselors also have their fair share of dealing with the secondary pain of loss. Children who’ve lost a parent often see their grief resurface when they reach milestones such as graduations and the rites of passage, prom, and other events that remind them of their loss. Educators bear the brunt of this second-hand grief when they witness and feel powerless over their student’s suffering. 

How to Deal With Second-Hand Grief

Dealing with second-hand grief takes patience and understanding your emotional reactions to grief. Recognizing why you’re experiencing grief over other people’s suffering is essential. Typically these grief reactions indicate a high level of empathy.

If you consider yourself empathetic, you may quickly pick up on other people’s grief. The following coping methods against second-hand grief are ways to deal with it in a few simple steps when it starts to affect you. 

Set boundaries on your emotional space

To successfully avoid becoming entrenched in someone else's grief, you'll need to set personal boundaries on your emotional space. While you don't have to say out loud that you're doing this, you can put these limits in your head and thoughts.

You'll need to practice letting go of how you feel after learning of someone's trauma or tragedy. You may want to repeat a mantra to yourself to the effect of "your suffering is not my suffering" to help rid you of the adverse effects of second-hand sadness.

Focus on the other person’s suffering

When a friend or another loved one share the intimate details of their pain and suffering with you, it's only natural to sympathize with them and try to put yourself in their shoes. You'll likely start experiencing some of the effects of their grief the more you learn of their trauma. Remember that while your reaction to their grieving is valid, their pain is more important when it concerns their situation.

Be careful not to project your needs onto the person who's suffering. It's easy to make this about yourself when your heart aches for them and you don't know how to help them. 

Examine your grief 

There can be many underlying reasons why you’re grieving someone else’s loss. Having unresolved grief often triggers painful memories and emotions when someone else suffers through a tragedy, whether or not it was related to the type of loss you experienced.

Set time aside to go through your feelings and emotions and pinpoint what’s causing you to feel this way. Ask yourself if this particular event makes you relive your past suffering. Or, are you trying to take on a loved one’s pain, so they suffer less from their experience? 

Practice detachment

Detachment is a barrier to protecting yourself from other people's suffering so that their grief doesn’t affect you personally. Detachment is a coping mechanism that’s highly effective against having any level of personal emotional engagement with or reaction to the distress of others.

When you practice non-ownership of the pain and suffering of others, you distance yourself from their crisis by stepping back from their tragedy while still empathizing with their situation. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With Second-Hand Grief

You can be one of your loved one's greatest grief resources when it comes to helping them cope with feeling sad about other people's grief. An easy way to help combat the effects of second-hand grief is by changing how we view others' pain and suffering. F

eeling sad for others or taking on their emotional burden doesn't make their pain disappear, and it just makes us feel worse for something that has nothing to do with us. What does help a loved one struggling with second-hand grief is helping them recognize when they need to take a step back from someone else's tragedy.

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Express your care and concern

When you see your loved one dealing with second-hand grief, it’s tough not being able to do anything about it. The best thing you can do is empathize with what your loved ones are going through while making them realize that they can’t carry the emotional burdens of others. This world is full of tragedy, and tragic circumstances happen every day.

Life can get pretty depressing when we make the world’s grief our burdens to shoulder. It’s best to try and maintain a distance from the pain and suffering of others, even when we feel bad for them or if things seem unfair. 

Acknowledge their pain and suffering

Recognizing your loved one's pain shows them that you care about how they're feeling. The first step in helping them get through their experience with second-hand grief is acknowledging what they're going through and allowing them to pinpoint the roots of their suffering.

Together you can talk about what's happened and why they may be experiencing strong emotional reactions. With a little self-exploration, they might tell what about this tragedy resonates with their past losses. They may need to explore further to discover the source of their hidden sorrow.

Don’t try and fix things

It’s only natural when a friend is in crisis for you to want to make things better for them. No one likes seeing their friends and loved ones struggling with grief. Wanting to step in and fix things is a natural reaction in many of us. But, when a person is dealing with personal pain and suffering, there’s nothing anyone can say or do to change what’s happened.

Although you may feel their pain and sympathize with what they’re going through, their emergency or tragedy isn’t your responsibility. Even when your child, spouse, or another family member is suffering, you can’t transfer that pain and sadness to yourself to take theirs away. Everyone needs to suffer through their losses and learn to adjust to the painful emotions of their experience.

Recommend them to grief counseling 

Grief counseling is a subset of psychology that allows bereaved individuals to explore their grief in a safe, nonjudgmental, and controlled environment. Grief counselors work with their clients to develop a care plan outlining their counseling goals and a timeline for achieving them.

Your loved one may benefit from the professional intervention of a highly-trained grief counselor to help them recognize why they’re absorbing other people’s pain and sorrow. Grief counselors use different modalities to help their clients heal. The primary sources of healing are cognitive-behavioral therapy, specialized grief work, and talk therapy.

Absorbing Other People’s Sorrow

Loss and grief are a part of everyday life’s experiences, and we can’t avoid pain and suffering regardless of how much we shield ourselves from it. At some point, everyone will face inevitable tragedies that are both painful and life-altering. Learning to care enough about someone else’s suffering while removing yourself from their disaster isn’t always easy, especially when dealing with someone you love and care about.


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