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8 Types of Unrecognized Grief and the Importance of Processing it with God

By nature, I am a positive, happy-go-lucky person. But there was a season when I was waking up feeling depressed. It didn’t make sense because, for the most part, everything in my life was good. So, I ignored my feelings and pressed through my day. But each morning, there was that feeling again. Finally, I realized what was happening. I was grieving.

My husband had just changed jobs. He had been on staff at a church for four years and was recently hired at a new one. My focus was on where we were going, so I didn’t realize I was experiencing loss about leaving, but my body did! Though I knew God was leading our family in this new direction, I still missed our old church.

I was sad, and for good reason. We had been a part of a wonderful community where we had dear friends and experienced God. As Dr. H. Norman Wright noted in his book, The New Guide to Crisis and Trauma Counseling, “Whenever there is any kind of attachment, a loss cannot be avoided when the tie is broken.” (p. 64)

What Is Loss?

Think about Dr. Wright’s statement. A loss happens when any kind of attachment is broken. He continues, “The amount of intensity of loss that you feel is closely tied to the replaceability of whatever you lost.” (p. 65)

Two people can go through a similar situation, and one can experience a tremendous sense of loss, while another experiences very little loss because it depends on how each person perceives it.

Take, for example, two people being denied admission to a college. For the first person, it has been their dream since they were little because many of their relatives attended that school, so it is part of their family identity. For the second person, it was one of several schools they applied to, and they are not even sure they want to go to college. Both people experienced the same loss, but the intensity of the rejection is far more devastating for the first person than the second because of what the opportunity represented.

Unrecognized Loss

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A sense of loss can occur when you change jobs, a friend moves, or a team, class, or relationship changes. It can be health-related, such as an illness, or hope-related, such as a dream or goal that wasn’t realized. These all create losses that need to be grieved.

Loss can be hidden beneath celebrated times of life, making them easy to miss, such as when we left our previous church. When you get a new job, it is expected to leave the old one. It’s an exciting opportunity! Why would a person be sad?

Similarly, when we grow up, we are expected to leave home, but that doesn’t mean we won’t miss our family. Parents will likely be proud of their grown children yet, at the same time, may also deeply miss their presence in the home.

These desired transitions can be painful. It doesn’t mean we don’t move forward; it just means we may need to acknowledge and process both the joy and pain. Recognizing when we are experiencing loss can help us create the space we need to grieve effectively. We must allow ourselves and others to work through our losses so new attachments can be developed.

Dr. Wright lists eight types of potentially unrecognized losses.

1. Material Loss

Material loss is when we lose an item that has an important emotional attachment, such as a wedding gift or family heirloom. As Christians, we sometimes wrongly assume that if we hold onto an item, we are being materialistic. But this is not always the case. I have a delicate ornament that was a gift my grandfather gave me the last time I saw him before he died. The object represents my relationship with my grandfather, whom I loved and miss dearly.

2. Relationship Loss

People are an important part of our lives. The loss can be immense when a friend moves, or a relationship ends. Most people are aware of this type of loss, but it is still good to take the time to reflect on whether there is a relational loss you have not fully acknowledged.

3. Intrapsychic Loss

How we view ourselves plays a huge role in our sense of self and contentment. If our image of ourselves changes, such as our sense of vitality or an expectation or dream is shattered, this is an intrapsychic loss. My neighbor had always dreamed of being a fireman and finally joined our local department. After a few months on the job, he seriously injured his leg. Though his leg is still functional, it disqualified him from continuing in the field. The loss for him was huge because he had to now imagine his life apart from being a firefighter.

4. Functional Loss

A woman seated in a wheelchair prays fervently before a window

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A functional loss can occur through an accident, an illness, or normal aging. Losing youthful vitality, strength, or ability all represent a functional loss and can be very hard to adjust to and accept. In my neighbor’s case, a functional loss (leg injury) accompanied his intrapsychic loss.

5. Role Loss

Throughout our lives, our roles change due to career changes, a divorce, empty nest, or retirement. Do you notice how most of the role changes listed here are part of the normal transitions in life? Yet, they still cause a sense of loss. This is exasperated in our culture as we often confuse our role with our identity. So, along with the role loss is a loss of our sense of self. I loved having my children under my roof. I knew when they moved out, the transition was going to be hard on me, so I tried to prepare by envisioning and creating a life post-hands-on motherhood, which helped me with the adjustment when the time came. But even though I emotionally prepared for it, I could not bypass the sense of loss their leaving meant to me and my purpose. I still had to grieve the end of a season I completely adored.

Empty nesters parents waving bye to adult daughter

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/KSChong

6. Systemic Loss

Systemic loss happens when someone leaves a group. It can be a child going off to college or a new boss being hired that changes the system. My dentist was recently killed in a car accident. He was such a wonderful Christian man and a fantastic dentist. To say I experienced trauma at the dentist over the years may be an exaggeration, but finding Dr. Lee gave me tremendous peace and security regarding my dental care. Most people would recognize a death as a loss. However, though I only knew him professionally, his death was devastating because of the important role he played in my sense of safety among those I depended on for professional care.

7. Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous losses include people who are physically removed but psychologically present, such as a missing soldier, or physically present but psychologically removed, such as having Alzheimer’s. The uncertainty of ambiguous loss makes it difficult to adjust to the change because the problem can’t be solved, so people are left in a state of uncertainty.

8. Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is “when [people] incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.”1 This can include unrecognized relationships like a lover, something society doesn’t define as significant like the loss of a pet, or an abortion; or when the griever is not recognized as able to grieve like the very young, very old, or mentally challenged.

Parents of children who identify as transgender may experience both ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief. They may grieve the loss of the child’s former appearance and voice. There can be a sense of loss because the dreams, expectations, and who they knew their child to be are gone, yet at the same time, the child is still physically present. Since transgenderism is celebrated in our culture and people are shamed if they disapprove/struggle in any way, those hurting over the changes in their family cannot openly grieve their loss.

God Is Present in Our Grief

mature african-american man looking stress, is there a way to be happy even in sadness

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As you read the list, you can see how many losses we experience in life and how easy it is to overlook them. Maybe you have found some areas of unrecognized loss you realize you’ve experienced. Please know it is important to grieve them and know that you are not alone.

Jesus understands.

Isaiah 53:3 (NIV): “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

God cares.

Psalm 34:18 (NIV) “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Grieving Will End

Revelation 21:4 (NIV): “He will wipe out every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

God wants to help you mourn so you can “make the necessary changes, so [you] can live with [your] losses in healthy ways.”2 Notice, it didn’t say so you can forget and move on. Our losses shape us, and pain may remain, though hopefully, it will lessen with time. But you can get to a place of acceptance and strength to form new attachments.

There Is Value in Loss

couple sitting together watching sunset, how to heal after miscarriage

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We live in a sinful world. As such, sin affects us all. Some of our losses will not make sense on this side of heaven. But I love how Dr. Wright notes, “Each and every loss comes with potential for change, growth, new insights, understanding, and refinement - all positive descriptions and words for hope. However, they are often in the future, and we fail to see that far ahead when we’re in the midst of grief.”3

It took a couple of years, but my neighbor, who lost his dream of being a firefighter, began a successful career in business. And I maintained the most important relationships at our old church and developed many special new ones.

The biggest lesson I am learning from my losses is to understand my identity in terms of Jesus; to not see my value in what I do or have, but in my belonging to Christ. It has given me a better understanding of the fact that this life is temporary and not all my desires will be fulfilled here on earth. As I grow in Christ, I understand more and more the hope of eternity.

2 Corinthians 4:17(NIV): “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Meanwhile, loss is a part of our earthly experience, so we need to acknowledge it in our lives and the lives of those around us. As we address our own suffering, we can help ease the suffering of others by graciously walking alongside them as they mourn and, with God’s help, encourage them toward acceptance of their losses and their hope in Christ.

Romans 12:15 (NIV): “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

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1. Wright, H. Norman. The New Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling, Regal, Ventura, CA, 2003. p. 76-77

2. Ibid., p. 88

3. Ibid., p. 62

Erin A. Barry is an author, speaker, counselor, and educational consultant. With a bachelor’s degree in education and an NCCA master’s of arts in clinical Christian counseling, Erin has an advanced certification in sexual therapy and is working on her doctorate in Christian counseling. She is the author of, Yes, You Can Homeschool! The Terrified Parent’s Companion To Homeschool Success. She and her husband, Brett, are founders of The Home Educated Mind, a Christ-centered community dedicated to providing materials and support for Christian parents.


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