Losses will occur in everyone’s life at different stages and under different circumstances. The pain of loss is universally acknowledged by all people. It’s the loss itself that can be categorized in a couple different ways. Throughout our lifetimes, we can be expected to experience two types of losses, called maturational losses and situational losses.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Situational Loss?
- What is Maturational Loss?
- Three Differences Between Situational and Maturational Loss
The main difference between the two types is that maturational losses are those that are "expected" as we develop from infanthood to adulthood and onward. Situational losses are usually unexpected and can create mostly unpleasant changes in our lives. These changes are sometimes temporary but in some cases can be permanent and have lasting, long-term effects on our emotional wellbeing.
Both these types of losses cause emotional pain and suffering leading to grief. Maturational losses occur in normal development so we're better able to deal with them without giving them much thought. Situational losses, on the other hand, are almost always unexpected and cause us to suffer in a much different way. Situational losses are the type that are more likely to cause the development of anxiety and depression if left untreated.
What is Situational Loss?
A situational loss occurs when an unexpected and traumatic life event takes place. These types of losses are not only limited to those resulting from death but can also happen as a result of changes in one’s life circumstances.
These changes are usually beyond your control and can create trauma that may lead to depression if left untreated. It's important to seek professional help if you're experiencing depression after this type of loss. If left untreated, a more serious type of depression may develop.
If you've suffered a breakup, loss of income, or have lost your vehicle to repossession, you may be feeling bummed out and maybe even a little depressed over it. While these stressful events can happen to anyone at any time, not expecting them to happen may make it difficult to cope with. You react in ways that may resemble actual depression, but in fact, it's something altogether different.
When you're feeling stressed, sad, or hopeless as a result of this type of loss, you're experiencing a "situational depression” that almost always goes away when you start feeling better about the breakup, you find another job, or otherwise work your way out of the situation that created that temporary loss.
Loss of job
When you lose your job or another source of income, it may feel as if the world has come crashing down on you. You may immediately start to feel stressed and panicked and it may be difficult to see past your immediate needs. Fear overwhelms you and it can leave you frozen and unable to think clearly. This is an example of what it means to be “frozen in fear.” It’s a result of chemical reactions in your brain that are defense mechanisms for coping with stress.
Eventually, you’ll move on from this stage depending on external factors such as finding another job or source of income, getting financial help from friends or family, or finding alternative ways of getting by. This type of loss also leads you to experience suffering that will typically move through all five stages of grief in the healing cycle.
Loss of body function or limb
Another type of situational loss is when you suffer serious illness or injury resulting in the temporary or permanent loss of body function or external limb. This may lead you to experience grief as you mourn the loss of a part of your physical self. As others struggle with how to console you through your loss, you can expect to experience pain and suffering as you learn to cope with your new reality.
It may be helpful to read books on grief to help you sort out your emotions as you adjust to your changed body image. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and compassion and avoid negative self-talk that may increase your chances of becoming depressed.
What is Maturational Loss?
Maturational loss happens as you develop and go through the cycle of life, where developmental changes can create a loss specific to every stage of life. It’s a form of anticipatory loss — a type of loss that we anticipate happening at every stage. These are normal life transitions but can nonetheless have a heavy impact on your mental health and emotional wellbeing.
When we look at it from a social standpoint, these changes are recognized as being a normal part of growth, and because society usually applauds these developmental milestones, the loss aspect of growth is usually ignored. Some examples of maturational loss can be the following:
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Children leaving for college
When you’re left with an empty nest after the youngest of your children goes off to college, you may have thought that you’d be prepared for this moment. But you probably failed to factor in that now your house is otherwise empty.
You might be feeling sad, lonely, and depressed. Not hearing the everyday sounds of your children getting ready, chatting on the phone, or sitting down to dinner with you can sometimes send you into deep sorrow over the loss of their companionship.
Reaching retirement after dedicating many years of your adult working life to a company or institution may at first glance appear to be a joyous occasion to celebrate. And it typically is. But what happens after the going away party ends and the confetti is cleared away? All you’re left with is a watch on your wrist to help keep track of the hours slowly ticking away as you try to fill the void your retirement left in your schedule.
This is when most retirees start thinking about what they had and what they’ve lost such as a job to report to every day, and a general sense of purpose. They had friends and colleagues that they greeted each day. They may have had a lunch buddy or an afternoon golf partner, and now all of a sudden they find themselves at a loss.
Everything they knew for the past 20 to 25 years or so is now gone. This type of change, even though it was anticipated and not in any way sudden, creates a great loss that must be properly dealt with in order to prevent depression.
Three Differences Between Situational and Maturational Loss
Some differences may be so closely similar that you might have trouble distinguishing between situational and maturational losses. Sometimes it’s just a minor nuance that takes it from one type to the next, for example:
Loss of a relationship
When you break up with someone or otherwise end a romantic relationship, you may be feeling sad, lonely, and depressed. These emotions can be very overwhelming for you as you struggle to cope with your loss and accept your new reality without your partner.
In some situations, you may also feel shame and humiliation in having lost your partner especially if it’s due to a public infidelity on their part. Most people don’t know what to say in these situations and normal grief rituals won’t necessarily apply to this type of loss, so they tend to stay away until you sort out your situation on your own. This is a typical situational loss.
Death of spouse due to old age
In this example, the end result is the same — you’ve lost your spouse or partner for good. Only this time, it’s due to old age related death. This type of loss is a maturational loss because it deals with the expected losses in the typical life cycle.
Loss of a child
A foster child being reunited with their parent
Losing a child is difficult no matter the circumstances. Here we have an example of losing a child in an anticipated way — the reunification of parent and child after fostering the child for a period of time.
Even though your mind registers that the goal of foster care is reunification with the parent, you still suffer a loss when the child leaves.
A child dying in an accident
When you lose a child to death whether in an accident or some other reason like suicide, the loss is typically a situational loss — one that was sudden and unexpected. The pain of losing your child might be the same as in a maturational type of loss, but the anticipation of one and not the other is the distinguishing factor.
Loss of Identity
Getting fired from your job
Many adults identify closely with their careers. When you get fired from your job, especially one that makes up a big part of who you are, this creates a certain type of loss that may lead to grief if you’re unable to quickly find another. This is a situational loss that typically resolves as soon as you find another similar job.
Being forced to switch careers due to age
When you’re forced to switch careers because you’ve aged out of your current one (i.e. child actors, models, newspaper boys), this is an example of maturational loss.
Even though you may be left just as aggrieved as if you were fired from your job, maturational job losses are generally foreseen giving you time to anticipate when you will have to seek an alternate career.
Losses Run Deep Whether Anticipated or Not
No matter the reasons for your loss, it leaves no doubt that you’ll suffer some sort of grief and anxiety whether it was a situational loss or a maturation type one. If you do find yourself grieving a loss, you should know that you will get through it in time as you find ways to cope with the changes in your life.
- Roelofs, Karin. (2017). Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 372,1718.
- McCoyd, Judith L.M., and Walter, Carolyn Ambler. (2016). Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan: A Biopsychosocial Perspective (2nd edition). New York: Springer.