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GRIEF 101:

Just the Basics


by Maureen Pollard

Emotional Health Editor, KBI Inspire Magazine

Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.  Visit her online at:

"There is no one right way to grieve. Grieving can be considered on a spectrum, with intuitive grievers on one end and instrumental grievers on the other, and people can fall anywhere in between." 

When it comes to grief, we often shy away from talking about the experiences, thoughts and feelings that happen when we suffer a loss. Learn the language of grief, and you’ll be able to better understand your own experiences of loss as well as show up for others when they are hurting.


Grief is a natural response to loss

Bereavement is a period of mourning after a loss

Mourning is an expression of grief through words and behaviour


Primary Loss refers to the main loss we are feeling. Often this is the death of a person, but sometimes it is the loss of a relationship in another way, the loss of some role or identity you had, or the loss of something important to you. This can include the loss of milestone events due to circumstances beyond your control.


Secondary Losses can accompany the primary loss. This means things you may experience changes in important areas such as your status, your community, property and your routines.


Intangible Losses can be harder to identify because they are more about ideas such as stability, a sense of security, trust and innocence.


Anticipatory Grief happens when we expect to experience a loss and we start responding as if it has already happened. We can experience anticipatory loss even as we are taking care of the business that comes with the ending that we are grieving.


Disenfranchised Grief is any grief that is not acknowledged by society and may be stigmatized. Examples include suicide loss, or pregnancy and infant loss, which people can find very difficult to talk about as these losses are often associated with trauma and bring up feelings of pain and fear, whether someone has had a similar loss or not.


Ambiguous Grief happens when we experience the loss of a meaningful relationship. There are two ways this can happen:

  1. A person we love leaves without goodbye (ie. missing persons)

  2. We have to say goodbye to the person we knew when there is a big change, even if they are still physically in our lives. (ie. dementia)


Cumulative Grief is what we call it when a person experiences multiple losses over time. This can be difficult over a lifetime, and it is especially difficult when someone experiences several losses in a short period of time. Each loss has it’s own grief associated with it, and so a person can have many layers of grief they are trying to process as they adjust to these losses.


Collective Grief is a term for grief that is felt by a community or group who experiences the same loss. Although each person experiences the loss and grieves it in their own way, everyone is touched by the situation. 


Complicated Grief is the on-going, unresolved and unmanageable experience of raw grief over a long time. While it is true that we carry our stories of grief throughout our entire lives, we are typically able to adjust to a loss and in time, we find a way to function again. Grief can be complicated by things such as mental illness, addictions and other experiences of trauma.


Trauma is often defined as the experience of a disturbing or distressing event involving an actual or perceived life threat. It can also be defined as any situation that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope, leaving them feeling unable to escape. A person can experience direct trauma (the incident happened to them personally), vicarious trauma (they witness someone else’s direct trauma story), secondary traumatic stress (an accumulation of witnessing many stories of trauma) or intergenerational trauma (trauma experienced by one person that changes them and shapes how their children experience the world because their parent is a trauma survivor).


There is no one right way to grieve. Grieving can be considered on a spectrum, with intuitive grievers on one end and instrumental grievers on the other, and people can fall anywhere in between. Intuitive Grievers tend to sit with deep feelings, talk and cry as they express their pain, may lack energy to engage in usual tasks of life while Instrumental Grievers tend to think about their grief and engage in actions to express their pain (ie. build a memory garden, start a fundraiser, write a book).


Integrated Grief is a term that means a person has accepted the reality of the loss, adapted to their current situation and resumed functioning with renewed meaning and purpose.


Phases of Grief can be identified, but it’s important to know they are non-linear, they are not time-limited, and they are universal. They include:

  •      Shock and Numbness (unable to take in the reality all at once)

  •      Searching (for answers) and Yearning (for what’s missing now)

  •      Disorganization (memory loss, confusion, low energy)

  •      Reorganization and Integration (finding a new balance)


The Tasks of Mourning include being able to accept the reality of loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to the new reality, then connecting with and honouring the memories while finding new meaning and purpose.


Thinking about grief with these terms in mind can help you navigate your experiences of loss. Remember, there is no one right way to move through grief. It takes time as you find ways to adjust to the significant changes loss brings to your life. You can trust yourself, but sometimes it’s also helpful to talk to someone who can help you if you’re feeling stuck. A grief group or therapist can help you move through the experience in your own way at your own pace.


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