What Is Selective Grief? And How Does It Work?


Selective grief can happen when you experience the death of someone you know, a close loved one, or even a stranger's death reported in the media. Our subconscious minds give weight and meaning to each death or tragedy suffered, allowing us to mourn the loss deeply. Alternatively, they can shield us from further suffering by ignoring or suppressing grief-related reactions. 

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Several factors influence choosing which losses to acknowledge, ranging from the attachment to persons or things suffered and outside influences like our friends and families. People who can selectively grieve their losses do so for various reasons. For example, people might suppress or reduce their grief to protect themselves from further suffering or reliving past trauma. 

It’s important to remember that grief is a natural response to loss. Not everyone can control who, what, and how they grieve. Selective grief is usually an automatic response to a tragedy that gives way to suppressing or ignoring that loss. Let’s learn more about selective grief and how it works so you can understand its role in your life. 

What Is the Definition of Selective Grief?

First, what is selective grief? If you’re not a psychologist or grief counselor, it’s normal to be unfamiliar with this term. Selective grief is a type of grief that’s categorized as complicated grief. It helps shield a bereaved person from experiencing compounded emotional reactions to loss. 

A person who experiences selective grieving may not always have control over their grief reactions. They may have trouble distinguishing forgotten pain and trauma from subconsciously repressed feelings and emotions. 

Additionally, when a person pays more attention to one tragedy over another, this is also considered selective grieving. In other words, it’s choosing what loss to grieve, how to grieve, or what disasters or events in our lives we allow to impact our grief responses. 

As humans, we have limits to our grief. We can’t grieve everything all the time or we’ll constantly have emotional burnout. This is why selective grief is normal and expected. 

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Examples of Selective Grief

Distinguishing selective grief from other types of suffering is not always easy. There's a clear indication that a person chooses to grieve one loss more so than another in some instances. Sometimes, people decide which losses to place a more significant meaning to keep themselves from becoming overwhelmed with grief. 

For example, a person might suffer multiple significant losses within a close period. An individual who has recently lost both their spouse and a parent within a few weeks might choose to grieve the loss of their spouse while temporarily compartmentalizing their grief as it attaches to the loss of their parent. 

In this example, choosing to mourn a spouse's death first doesn't mean that they loved and cared for their parent any less. Selectively choosing not to grieve both losses simultaneously allows them to process each loss accordingly.

Another common way we express selective grief is through news and media. The media highly influence how persons might choose to grieve inevitable tragedies in how they selectively report casualties in the news. An individual might decide to mourn a disaster in a particular part of the world they feel connected to while actively ignoring a similar tragedy in another based on their biases stemming from the media. Similarly, someone might mourn a celebrity’s death while not feeling anything about others. 

Why Do People Selectively Grieve?

Bereaved individuals have many reasons for choosing to selectively mourn their losses stemming from the condensation of grieving to compartmentalizing their losses. People decide to process what's relevant to their lives and what defines their individual experiences. 

Strong influences from family and friends also contribute to a person's decision to grieve painful events in their lives selectively. Aside from using selective grieving as a coping mechanism, people might choose to forgo grieving the loss of a person who they've become estranged from or who has caused them tremendous pain and suffering in the past. 

In some cases, selective grief isn’t even intentional. It can happen subconsciously, affecting each of us in different ways. Like all aspects of life, selective grief is complicated. 

What Are the Problems With Selective Grief?

As you might expect, compartmentalizing grief can lead to unique challenges down the line. People who choose to grieve certain losses but not others might develop grief-related complications later. Some of the more significant consequences of selective grief are the compounding of pain and sorrow and feelings of shame and regret. 

Often these reactions complicate and delay the grieving process, making it more challenging to cope with pain and loss. This is especially true when choosing to suppress grief responses following the death of a close family member. 

Another problem with selective grief is that it tends to place a greater significance on the death of one person over another, essentially assigning more value to the person whose loss is acknowledged and grieved over. There’s a spectrum to selective grief, and it might not affect each individual in the same way. 

How Can You Deal with Selective Grief?

Some healthy coping strategies you can use when dealing with selective grief include acknowledging that there’s no wrong way to grieve. Every individual experience varies and how one person chooses to process their losses has no reflection on how another person should deal with theirs. 

The more you understand the individuality of grief, the easier it is for you to identify your very own grief responses. The following tips may help you cope with your grief or your decision to suppress your pain and suffering. 

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Be patient with yourself

Grieving the loss of a loved one or another significant loss can impact your life's journey. Your personal experiences leading up to your loss will play an essential role in reacting to certain losses instead of others. 

On a grander scale, you may feel highly affected and emotional over what seem to be minor or less significant losses and show little to no emotion over major ones. There are many reasons your grief reactions may seem disproportionate to the loss suffered. 

Your mind and body use your grief responses as protection mechanisms to help you better handle and overcome traumatic events in life. When feeling unsure why specific losses affect you more profoundly than others, take the time to reflect on your grief and your bond or relationship with the loss. 

Allow yourself to feel your emotions

When struggling with selective grief, you may feel guilty or ashamed about how you're reacting to certain losses. The family and society you were born into play a significant part in how you react whenever tragedy strikes, according to what they deem acceptable behavior. 

In some cultures, society expects family members to participate in traditional funeral rituals as a form of respect toward the deceased and the remainder of the family regardless of broken relationships or estrangements. Choosing to skip out on a funeral, for example, is unacceptable in some families. It might create an even greater divide among the living relatives. 

When you find yourself at a crossroads on how to respond to the death of a loved one, allow yourself time to be mindful of your feelings. Only you can decide what level of grief, if any, is appropriate in each circumstance. 

Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion involves showing yourself the same kindness and understanding you would give to someone else in your position. Try not to be so hard on yourself when struggling with selective grieving. Not everyone processes grief experiences the same way, and it’s crucial not to judge yourself according to how others grieve. 

Your past experiences and any trauma you’ve suffered shape your emotional reactions to current tragedies. When you go easy on yourself, you learn to trust the journey to take you where you need to go in processing and accepting your losses. 

You may find that how you currently feel may change over time. Even when it doesn’t, try not to be judgmental or hard on yourself. Self-compassion plays a powerful role in healing from grief. 

Understand the grief process

The grief process is such a unique experience for everyone that it’s challenging to know what it will look like for you after suffering a significant loss or setback. Professional psychologists and medical researchers have categorized certain stages of grieving that many bereaved individuals are likely to experience. 

However, no one ever knows how grief will impact them specifically until they go through the experience themselves. The more you learn about what happens when suffering through loss, the easier it is to identify the stages of grief. Selective grieving is a form of complicated grief in that grief-related responses may show up later when least expected. 

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Seek professional help

Professional grief counseling exists to help individuals explore their grief and trauma to understand what they’re experiencing. More importantly, it helps you handle grief-related feelings and emotions. 

While not everyone is a good candidate for grief counseling, almost everyone benefits from learning some basics of what to expect after a loss. Grief counselors guide bereaved individuals to a healthy way of grieving to lessen their suffering while learning to accept their new lives after loss. 

How Can You Help a Loved One Deal With Selective Grief?

Helping a loved one make sense of their losses and come to terms with how they’re experiencing their grief can be a complicated task for almost anyone. Fortunately, there are many free and low-cost resources to help you support others. Aside from suggesting your loved one seek professional counseling, the following are other practical alternatives to getting them the help they need. 

Lend them your time and attention

Persons who’ve suffered through a significant loss may need your added support now more than ever. Many people don’t know what to expect when a loved one dies or when they suffer through a major life-changing setback.

Your loved one benefits from having someone to talk to about their loss-related experiences. You don’t need to be a bereavement expert to have these conversations with your loved one. Most grieving individuals only need a sounding board, and they don’t expect you to say anything meaningful to make them feel better. 

Gift them something to read

Books on grief help individuals learn from others’ experiences. There are books written on almost every type of tragedy and loss imaginable for your loved one to read. A well-researched book that speaks directly to their loss will provide your loved one with valuable information on how to confront their pain and suffering or what to do in specific loss-related instances.

There’s undeniable power behind the written words of shared stories of loss and survival that may help your loved ones come to terms with their loss and how they choose to grieve. They may not yet find themselves ready to read through a book. When the time is right, this is one of the most loving and thoughtful bereavement gifts you can give to anyone suffering a setback.

Selectively Grieving Helps the Mourning Process

Having compassion and sympathy following the death of a loved one or after suffering an equally tragic event is a natural and normal part of the human reaction to loss. At times, this very compassion is what compounds our suffering making it almost unbearable. 

The human mind and body seek ways of protecting themselves from the onslaught of overwhelming pain and suffering by selecting what's essential to grieve at any given time. Selective grieving helps alleviate certain grief-related burdens until the brain can process each individually and more healthily. 


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