Absent Grief: Why Am I Not Grieving the Loss of My Mother?
When people suffer a profound loss, their emotional system can respond in countless ways. There’s no predicting how a person will react until they’re face to face with losing a significant loved one, such as a mother. Some may be completely wracked and overwhelmed by grief to the point that they have difficulty functioning. Others may be in a daze, trying to make sense of the loss. And yet, some folks may seem to side-step grief altogether. Somewhere between the memorial service and the first year of a loss, most people expect grief to show its face eventually. When grief is nowhere to be found, it’s aptly called absent grief.
What is Absent Grief?
Absent grief is a form of complicated grief. With absent grief, a person doesn’t experience the typical sadness, pain, or anguish that is often attributed to loss and suffering. Many of the five stages of grief may never materialize for someone encountering absent grief. However, denial can play a large role in absent grief, which is the first stage of grief. Feelings and emotions normally present with a loss are suppressed, whether consciously or subconsciously. When emotions are suppressed, they will find their way to the surface at some point. Sometimes, all it takes is a small, insignificant disappointment or setback to trigger an eruption of dormant emotions. Absent grief can manifest itself as resilience or even numbness and disbelief. If someone seems resilient to grief, they may feel sad while choosing to suppress their emotions to get on with their lives.
Reasons for Absent Grief
There are a few significant reasons for absent grief.
When people are geographically cut off from regular interactions with loved ones and friends, it could greatly impact how they handle loss. When a person is routinely “out of sight” or not regularly involved in the day-to-day activities with a loved one, it can make disconnecting from the loss easier. Losing a loved one who lives far away may not alter their daily routines much. To the person experiencing loss, it’s as if they aren’t really gone since they’re out of the area.
If a departed loved one traveled regularly for work, it may feel like another business trip for someone experiencing absent grief. While it may seem like an extended trip, staying in denial or suppressing feelings about the loss can be easier.
For some people encountering a significant loss, the demands and logistics of handling everything from the memorial service to updating family and friends to closing the estate can leave little room for grief. As more and more demands are placed on folks handling the aftermath of a loss, feelings, and emotions can become heavily suppressed. Once the dust settles, they may choose to keep the pace up by continually adding more and more tasks to their lifestyles. In this way, the deeply buried feelings can be ignored. While this may seem like a good way to manage a loss, it will cause more pain in the long run. Whether folks like it or not, feelings will not be denied. There will always be a reckoning.
When a loved one reaches the end of their life after a painful battle with a prolonged illness, the emotionally exhausting toll on the family may be great. Watching a family member suffer over a lengthy period can be extremely painful. By the end, there may be little room left for tears. For those family members charged with caretaking, it can be a dual relief: their loved one is no longer in pain, and the heavy demands of caretaking can finally end. Any feelings or emotions left may be suppressed as folks recuperate from a long, difficult caretaking journey.
Dealing with Absent Grief
The most helpful way to deal with absent grief is to observe the “four tasks of mourning” model created by renowned Psychologist J.W. Worden. The four tasks include:
- Accepting the reality of the loss
- Processing the pain of grief
- Adjusting to a new reality without a loved one
- Finding a way to move forward with life
For those experiencing absent grief, they may not have fully accepted the loss of their loved one. They may be going about their daily lives as if nothing has happened. For example, they may be setting a place at the table for the departed as if they may be back from a business trip that evening. Failure to accept the loss only delays the grieving process. As soon as a person with absent grief acknowledges that the loss forever changed their life, the sooner they can begin to heal.
Working Through the Pain
After reaching acceptance, the pain of grief can be processed. Several feelings and emotions may spring up after being suppressed for so long. Whether it’s family, friends, or a grief counselor, enlisting the help of a support team is critical. Experiencing so many raw emotions can be challenging. Having good support will help ease the burden of releasing deep-seated grief.
Adjusting to a New Reality
While a loved one may be gone from this Earth, they will always be present in spirit. Adjusting to life without them doesn’t mean they’ll be forgotten. While the dynamic that existed with a loved one is gone, it’s possible to discover a new role and figure out how to build a life around it.
Once a person with absent grief has accepted the loss, worked through their pain, and adjusted to their new reality, they’re ready to move forward and embrace life fully. The memory of the departed still burns bright, and the bond is still strong; yet, it’s now possible to create new routines and activities. They can offer peace and comfort as a new identity is forged.
Absent grief has a way of silently disrupting our lives by withholding emotions for an extended period. Dealing with absent grief takes time, patience, and support. It all starts with acknowledging that grief exists. By facing our grief, we can release it and again enjoy life's breathtaking beauty.
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