Not All Losses Are The Same

The death of someone we love is always difficult. The circumstances surrounding the loss however are seldom the same. Also, our responses to loss are not all the same.

I’ve had multiple losses in my life and not one of them has had the same impact. Yes, there are similarities, but there are lots of differences, too. As we navigate our grief journeys and support others in the journey it is helpful to be mindful of these differences.

Anticipated or Sudden

The main difference for me has been whether the death was anticipated, like the passing of my parents and grandparents, or sudden, like the recent death of a good friend. The grief is profound in both cases, but we have to appreciate their differences.

Well meaning adults sometimes exclude children from anticipatory grief, thinking they are protecting them. The opposite is often true, as at some level the child may not only be surprised, but resentful for being excluded. Even when an adult or child is “prepared,” it is important that we not minimize their pain or need to mourn by saying such things as “Well, it was expected after all.” Or, “It’s behind you now and you can move on.”

The more sudden the death, the more likely the shock and the disbelief that it happened. Some try to push away the pain at first. Older teens and adults may plunge into activities at a frantic pace and avoid being alone with their grief. The young child may respond by going outside to play in the only way he or she knows how since “play is a child’s work.” We know the path to healing is to allow ourselves to move toward the pain and visit those dark feelings, but for some it is very difficult to do. Being patient with ourselves or with others who experienced the loss is an important part of coping when death is sudden and unexpected and feelings are very raw. Refrain from telling the person, “You need to snap out of it.” Or, “At least she didn’t have to suffer long.”

Whether the death is anticipated or sudden we may feel culpable in some way. I personally wish I had been more assertive with my father about his heavy drinking and smoking which contributed to his death. It may or may not have made a difference, but I’ll never know since I only tried once. Guilt can raise its ugly head in many ways. An unresolved argument, an ill-timed vacation, work priorities, a missed opportunity…

A tough lesson for me, but I eventually learned that I cannot undo the past. I can learn to forgive myself and I can live forward being more mindful in my relationships.


Losses also differ based on the age of the person who died. When a person is older it is easier to understand death is “the natural order of things.” That’s not to say it makes the loss easier. But, when death happens while a person is young, it feels more tragic – a life that has been cut short.

Many of the differences between a loss of an elder loved one and a young life are similar to those of anticipated and sudden loss. It is key to understand the difference, yet appreciate the grief both cause.


Some deaths have a stigma – suicide, drug overdose, murder, AIDS, for example. Society responds differently to these loses, and sympathy is not as readily available from outsiders. That often brings additional feelings of shame, embarrassment, loneliness and/or hurt with the grief of a stigmatized loss.

The more stigmatized the death the more isolated the survivors may feel. There certain things we “just don’t talk about” in our society. Without very sensitive friends and family members, professional help, and/or retreat experiences that provide an opportunity to mourn with those who understand, healing may be difficult, and the consequences long lasting. Fortunately there are many organizations that provide that special touch and/or connect those who can truly understand and care.

Final Thoughts

We must always remember that every person’s situation is different, and every person’s unique experience and personality plays a role in their grief.

There’s no time limit for “getting over it,” and “moving on.” I’m still amazed at how prevalent this view is in society, and also how limiting and damaging it is for those who need to mourn in order to heal and create a new life out of their experience of loss.

To quote from Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow,” as I’ve done before in Hello Grief:

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift.

The new life we create after loss doesn’t put the grief behind. If we are wise, in time, the experience of loss softens and changes us, and our “gift” is helping others through the “darkness.”


  1. jo mitchell said on August 4, 2010 at 12:06 pm ... #


  2. Jenifer said on August 21, 2010 at 11:43 pm ... #

    I love the quote, it truly is a gift to go into the sorrow. To take the time, get support, and find the courage to grieve. For me, the long delay in experiencing grief (30 years later), made the tragedy of my father’s death at age 11, even more difficult.

  3. Donnetta said on September 27, 2010 at 11:01 pm ... #

    The new life we create after loss doesn’t put the grief behind. If we are wise, in time, the experience of loss softens and changes us, and our “gift” is helping others through the “darkness.” I love this statement. It describes my life since the death of my daughter

  4. Barbara said on February 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm ... #

    Thank you so much.
    I lost my elderly father to Lymphoma in January,my fraternal twin sister in 1995, and as a psychology student it strikes me how different the two experiences have felt.With my sister the loss was sudden,and gut-wrenching while greif for my dad began when I heard he was diagnosed (a year ago) so is almost felt like releif, even though I miss him. this article makes a lot of sense to me,

  5. Carole White said on February 27, 2012 at 12:21 am ... #

    My Mom passed away in January, I’m an adult not a child.She was 88yrs old, but didn’t look it or act it..Full of energy and always on the run with her friends with her various clubs. I’m having an awful time dealing with her death..I was told six days before her death that she had terminal cancer..I kept her home with me and hospice..her health dropped so severly every day. It was all so unbelievable, I think I’m still in shock…Friends tell me I was a wonderful daughter,but I’m so loaded with regrets and guilt…I can’t seem to get past it, I feeel really stuck there.I could have done more..I could have, I should have,I could have been a better daughter..I miss her so much. It’s really hard to learn to live without her..really don’t know how to live without her.

  6. Tiffany (BassAngelMLS) said on April 9, 2012 at 8:10 pm ... #

    Mine is such a confusing grief because it was anticipated yet so sudden. My Mommy passed away on August 6, 2011. She had just turned 52, she was full of life even with cancer. Doctors always looked at her with confusion asking “Where is the patient?” She never looked like a woman with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. Like Carole, I too am an adult, but because everyone thinks I’m 18, I feel like a teenager who has lost the dearest person to them. Its so confusing because, like Carole, we were told 7 days before her death that it was terminal. Her health didn’t drop drastically in those seven days … it remained basically the same. Then Friday night, she couldn’t catch her breath … but things returned to the same plateau they had been the last seven days. She was coherent, she could eat, laugh, talk, watch. She woke up the next morning like usual … asked for 10 more minutes of sleep and never really woke back up again. Within a few hours … she was gone. Just like that, so sudden, so unexpected. It shocked even her doctors and hospice …

    Those two years we fought cancer together … she told what a wonderful daughter I was. The nurses told me, the doctors told me, other cancer patients told me … yet I still feel I could have done more. Her last week I had to work … it was arranged for me to be home the next week. I was one week too late … and that is my deepest regret. Though she was not alone (my sister and mom’s first granddaughter were there with her while I worked) … that is my missed opportunity. Honestly … Life feels like grasping for straws as I try and figure out what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know … all I know is that I don’t want her death to have been in vain. Something good must come from it …

  7. Erik said on May 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm ... #

    Mine was very sudden. At the age of 6 my mom died in a car accident, and the only silver lining about that day in 1977 was a casual goodbye like any other day. Some people say that at least I got to say goodbye….but nothing really prepares you for it.

    My uncle and dad & I were riding a train from Salt Lake City to Price, and my mom & her friend were following in the car. The tracks were near the highway, and my dad could see the car from the window during the ride. I remember him saying out of the blue—that the car had disappeared at the crest of a small hill & he suddenly was worried. Next thing I remember is a policeman at the station picking us up & taking us to the hospital. It was there we learned her chest was crushed due to a rollover. I kind-of understood yet I didn’t, and on the ride back home in my grandparent’s car I remember being told that she “wasn’t coming back.” To make matters worse, my dad & grandparents felt it would be best if I didn’t attend the funeral because they feared me seeing my mom’s body in a casket would give me nightmares. Years later they realized they made the wrong decision, and over time I learned to forgive them. But it was hard. Very hard.

    Though the grief has subsided, it still comes in spurts. This Mother’s Day has been more difficult than ones gone by for some reason. It was 35 years ago but sometimes it hurts like hell. Last year an old friend of mine died from a brain tumor. Van Halen was his favorite band, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to them right now. I’m in touch with his mother and we talk on a regular basis. Another friend of mine lost her husband last year, also to cancer. Helping her by providing moral support has made me realize I’m still affected somewhat by my mom’s death. I try not to be selfish by downplaying the situation. Just because mine was abrupt and theirs wasn’t does not mean theirs is any easier. It hurts in different ways.

    The million dollar question I have for God someday is What Would My Life Have Been Like If My Mom Had Lived? Would I not be divorced and single? Would I have not had a drug problem? (been clean and sober 9 years) Would I have been more sucessful financially and believed in myself more? Those things I’ll always wonder.

  8. tasha said on September 20, 2012 at 5:42 am ... #

    even my email attests to the fact that death has been a constant companion since i was 11. I can empathize with Eric. although it was my step dad, it took me many years to forgive my mother for leaving him, he died weeks later. as a child i didnt understand that alcoholism was the killer and still some days I still have anger towards my mother our relationship will likely never recover.nobody talks in our family so well i never get told when ppl die. as well i was 3000 miles from my family most of my adult life, going through 3 boyfriends and a husband all dying tragic young stigmatized ways. two of them were not on stigmatized but publicized, one nationally. It was surreal and i was expeccted to keep everything togethere. if not me who> chronicle of death for me reads like a grocery list for a family of 8. my stepdad age 11; age 23 hiv not with him at time tho, first real boyfriend father of oldest child; age 16 fav uncle dies drug overdose;age 20, boyfriend axed in head, 4 friends dye in head on collision. age25 husband of 4 yrs friend for 8, dies steriod abuse. age 27 next boyfriend driveby shooting. come home to find out 3 close friends have died. and then was involved in a murder trial where i knew one of the women killed. I am 40 now. I didnt treat the father of my 2 youngest children with very much love. I didnt care. i was past emotion. no longer able to feel with the same depth as normal ppl do , having to soldier on so many times it became who i was and how i made my relationships based on need rather then love and emotionally void , now i am with a man i love more than anything well except kids. he cheated on me i no although he lies about it. and all of a sudden i am crying constantly looking in his accounts for cell bills seeing everything he does as a pushing away like he wants to leave although he says he loves me and he has made an effort to be more tender ect. i believe the fear of losing him finally sent me into the grieving process i should have done many years ago. and now it will probably ruin my marriage. so that is a lesson to those who think they need to be strong. or expeirance multiple deaths, pls grieve it will kill you in the end if you don t my email is latin for the little death… meaning a death not worthy or a thing finished but not done properly a bad end. fitting

  9. Faisal Rehman said on April 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm ... #

    Missed opertunities and the feeling that I didn’t give much time to my uncle/father, didn’t even get the time to say thankyou for all that he had done for me…Its just painful, really painful…Now that he is no more, his wonderful thoughts and sayings and guidance continuously remind me of him..Really wish I could have cherished more, the time that he was here. I really miss the happy moments and the sense that an elder is there to pray for me, to look after me…I really hope I could meet him after I part from this world and tell him how much grateful I am to him for all that he had done for me.. may he be in paradise and in peace, and may we meet again jn the hereafter…

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