Some Observations about Loss and Grief


Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.

I’m quite close to someone who recently lost a beloved family member.  The dearly departed was a septuagenarian who had battled a case of metastasized cancer that finally got the best of him.  To respect my friend’s privacy, I don’t want to say anything more than that about her father and his medical situation.  I do, however, wish to share a few conclusions I’ve come to about the psychology of grief after observing someone I care a great deal about struggle to achieve a kind of emotional equilibrium after a profound loss.

Before I go any further, I want everyone to understand that I asked my friend’s permission before writing this.  She, of course, gave it.  Had she not, it is likely this blog never would have seen the light of day.

This friend had an extraordinarily close relationship with her father, mostly because her procreators broke up when she was a young girl, and she ended up living with her male parent.  Now that he’s gone, she is having an inordinately hard time getting past the loss of the man who meant so much to her.

I’m beginning to suspect that she, in fact, is actually clinging to her grief as a way of prolonging it.  She’s doing this because she’s no longer able to hold on to the man himself.  Because she has come to associate the pain of her loss with the person she lost, she welcomes the pain as a way of holding on to her father.  Her anguish and grief is all she has left of him except for her memories of the time they spent together.  The sense of loss and sadness are poor substitutes for his physical presence, but they are substitutes nonetheless.  As long as the pain is present, her father feels real to her.  When it finally fades away (if it does), she will, in effect, have completely lost him.

My friend frequently posts photos of her father and talks about how sad she is on social media.  These very public confessions and admissions make me wonder.  Who is she doing these things for?  I do not question that her pain is real.  Certainly it is, but why does she want to lay bare her soul to the entire world?

Grief that comes from the loss of a loved one is a terribly private kind of mourning.  Carrying pain of that type is similar to carrying an ugly secret.  There are moments when one simply wants to express it, to let it be known, to confess its presence—as a way of stopping the bleeding and then cauterizing the wound.  Posting very personal feelings of loss is an act of cauterization.  It’s a way of screaming “I HURT!” at the top of one’s lungs.  Once that ugly truth has been publicized, there is no longer any possibility for the person making it to remain unseen and in the shadows.

The stoic in me wants to step in when I’m around my grieving friend.  I find myself wanting to tell her that I understand her pain, but I also want to warn her to be on guard lest despair become her new normal.  The stoics believe strongly in the importance of achieving self-mastery.  Does this self-mastery require us to deaden our feelings, turn ourselves into unemotional robots?  I don’t think so; that’s not the way I read the stoics.

What do you think about my friend, her situation, and my interpretive reading of her ways of dealing with loss and grief?

33 thoughts on “Some Observations about Loss and Grief

  1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post, Troy. My first thought (and it’s not in any way a criticism) was that I don’t think there is any right way to grieve. Not that I’m an expert or anything, but from personal experience (I have lost both parents and a child) and from observation, some people do need longer than others, and even the same person can grieve differently depending on the circumstances. When my spouse and I lost our first child, it probably took me a year to approach anything like feeling ‘normal’ again – perhaps it took longer because I found it difficult to talk about without feeling overwhelmed. Losing parents felt somewhat different, and the period of mourning/grief was shorter. I am sure there were many reasons for the difference… I think the best thing you -or anyone- can do for your friend is to just ‘be there’ for her, and to let her grieve in her own way and in her own time. If you think about it, it is almost as if she has lost both parents, because the one parent probably had to fill both roles. Eventually she will start to emerge and her loss will not occupy every waking moment. I am sure she is glad to have someone like yourself who is concerned enough to ask the question. My best wishes to you both.

  2. Hi, and thank YOU for your very interest comment. I totally agree that there is no “correct” way to grieve. I’ve always been fascinated, though, with watching people, with studying them, with listening to what they say and how they say things. Perhaps I should have studied psychology when I was at the university. People are so interesting, especially when they are facing stresses, hardships, things which take them beyond their comfort zones. I think I see my piece as very speculative. What if people lose loved ones but then cope with said losses by hanging on the emotions they associate with those lost individuals so that the emotions become something akin to substitutes? I have not lost either one of my parents but I have lost grandparents. I’ve also lost spouses–not to death but to divorce. I wonder how losing someone to a divorce is different from losing them when they die? So many interesting questions that need pondering!

  3. I certainly understand and relate to your point of view. It is my personal experience that we all grieve differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people are more public about their grief and need a good deal of support in order to get through it, others are extremely private and would prefer to grieve privately. It’s not easy to be around a grieving friend or family member; it can make you feel very uncomfortable, but being a good friend means sometimes being outside of your comfort zone or making a sacrifice. I usually tell myself to just be quiet and listen. I can only imagine what people around me have had to endure over the years.

    1. By the way, I want to begin by telling you how much I envy your current lifestyle. I was in Lisbon, Portugal, years ago and fell head over heels in love with the place. I also spent approximately two decades living outside the US–in many interesting places–and am feeling a little stifled now that I’ve returned “home” to America.

      I totally agree that “one size fits all” is rarely true about human behavior and how we deal with things. We are all so idiosyncratic. I really wanted to write a very speculative piece that examined/pondered something I noticed in myself and in my grieving friend. I began to wonder if it was possible for a person, after suffering a loss, to become attached to an emotion that he or she associated with the lost item or individual. In other words, could a person become attached to sadness if that sadness made him or her think (or feel the presence of) the lost individual. The emotion, in other words, had become a kind of substitute for the lost person.

      I noticed this happening in myself several months ago. Because I am such a politically progressive person and am quite outspoken, I found myself getting more and more addicted to tweeting because Twitter was enabling me to experience and express the anger I was feeling about what had been lost in America after the election of Trump. The more I tweeted my outrage, the more attached I got to tweeting my outrage. I had gotten attached to feeling anger. The anger was filling a kind of void in me. I eventually discovered that this was self-destructive, though, and got off Twitter.

      I guess I’ve always been the sort of guy who likes to observe, make mental notes, and then hypothesize about human behavior.

  4. Troy,
    Trying so hard to cope with my Trump (and company) anger. The writing certainly helps. Keep on sharing; we appreciate it.

    1. Trump and Trumpism (the movement actually scares me more than the individual) hits me very hard because I have lived in Africa and other places some might easily dismiss by referring to them as “third-world.” (Or perhaps even “shitholes.”) My wife is a Muslim with dark skin who hails from Egypt and only came here three years ago. (Her contribution to the country has already been great.) I totally reject nationalism and nativism and stereotyping in all its forms. The optimist in me believes that the nation has slipped into something akin to temporary insanity. The pessimist sees darker days ahead. You keep on sharing as well. I certainly respect you as a writer and thinker and like to hear your thoughts.

  5. I had not been exposed to death, and I’m grateful for that. I imagine the death of somebody special is like losing a piece of you. A piece which has known joy, and now welcomes pain. Based on many books, some people thrive on pain, until it becomes an addiction, as an outlet for their emotions, or a barrier to numbness. I do not know which is better since I haven’t really tried, but I think it is pain over…emptiness. I believe grief is the healthiest way to confront our humane feelings and thoughts. Without grief, somehow you’ll end up beyond the breaking point. I do not think that you would want that to happen.

  6. Thank you, Nour Lee, for the thoughtful comment. When I was writing this blog, I wanted to think about the possibility that some people get “stuck” in an emotional state because they don’t know how to move on, past it, to a new way of being and living. I think it is possible to want to cling to sadness because, through that emotion, we connect with whoever was lost. The person is now gone but the connection can remain if we are able to cling to the emotion that we associate with the person who is now gone. It is likely that some people hold on to anger and hatred in the same way, as a way of feeling less empty. The emotion fills a kind of void that was created when the loss took place.

  7. Maybe her relationship with her father was part of her self-definition. Without the relationship her ‘self’ is no longer complete. The grief has replaced the relationship and is currently filling the gap of self until she finds a way to feel whole.

    1. Wow! Yes! I think you’ve absolutely captured what I think is going on inside my friend. Her father’s loss left a void that she is trying to fill. Grief, because she associates this emotive state with her father, is currently that thing she is using to fill this emptiness. Your explanation is also compelling! Thank you for explaining what I was trying to say better than I was able to.

      1. Been there; I lost my brother (years ago so not raw) but I felt a real loss of identity that is very different from losing someone who is not such a strong part of your formative existence.

      2. Like you, I have lost loved ones. (Actually, there’s more than one way to “lose” a person–I’m thinking of my mother now whom I’m estranged from.) I think it is pretty common (and certainly understandable) to want to cling to things that remind one of the dearly departed. The loss of a loved one is so utterly unsettling that it is quite natural to try to “reincarnate” the dead by remembering them very intensely or holding on to certain emotional states.

  8. It’s painful… continuing to live life all the while thinking how different it would have been if those people lost to death were still around. But life goes on although one never can overcome the loss. Memory is the only thing that makes us less distanced from the ones we love.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. In a sense, as long as we remember those who’ve departed, they still remain “alive.” They live in our memories, in our hearts, in our imaginations.

  9. I appreciate your observations here. I hope that your friend can leave the sadness behind with time as she transitions to remembering all the best aspects of her dad.

  10. Interesting topic. As I age, I continue to lose more and more close friends and loved ones. Each loss is different, and each person experiencing a loss is entitled to react however they do. I hesitate to judge anyone who is suffering.
    Thanks for tackling a real issue.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Actually, I didn’t want to judge my friend but simply speculate about the nature of mourning and the various ways people mourn. I’ve always studied people and find them fascinating.

      In most cases, with my own life, I often find myself baffled about what sort of action to take to navigate through difficult times and loss. As I comment here, I’m reminded that we are all so vulnerable. So terribly vulnerable…

  11. I was 36 when my father died. I was devastated. I was Daddy’s little girl. I had 3 younger brothers, but I was his baby girl. I grieved for a long time. Well, for 7 years anyway. Then my husband died. My father was my connection to the past. My husband was the future and they were gone. Grief is indescribable. No matter how well you know a person, you cannot imagine what they are going through.

    My mother died 3 years ago. After losing 2 parents and a husband, I can tell you that the grief is different in each situation. It presents itself out of the blue years later when a commercial comes on or a book reminds you of them or sometimes there’s no logical reason. You just tear up.

    Sometimes I think my reason for being here is to learn to deal with loss. But, who knows? We all deal with it in our own way. All the rest of us can do is be there for the grieving person. With lots of hugs. 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal story. My real intent in writing this article was to speculate about the psychology of grief. When a loved one dies, the loss is so profound that some, it seems, cling to whatever they have left they can associate with the deceased, even if this only thing is sadness. Is it possible that sadness can actually become a kind of replacement for the individual who is now gone? I really enjoy writing speculative pieces, and this one certainly falls into that category.

  12. Good observations in this post! Grief is a difficult beast to manage, and it never manifests the same way twice. Both of my parents passed away, within 10 months of each other (she was 59, he was 64) – it was the hardest time of my life. Unlike your friend, I kept all my pain inside and to the outside world I looked like I was coping well. On the inside I felt barely functional. I had been the primary caregiver to both my parents, and after they were gone not only did I miss them terribly, but I had an identity crisis. I was no longer a daughter, no longer a caregiver – who was I now? It took a couple of years, and lots of support from friends and family, but I figured it out (well, as much as you can, lol) and landed on my feet. Be that support for your friend, and when she’s ready to move forward, she will.

    1. Thank you for this insightful comment. I agree with everything you’ve said. Psychology is so interesting that I often wished I had studied it more formally. Yes, my friend is strong and is showing signs of recovery.

  13. Are you writing just from observation? What about your own grief experience? We can never truly know another person’s pain. The way grief is experienced–it’s duration and intensity–is directly related to the relationship between the departed and the bereaved, as well as the bereaved emotional makeup. Grief is can be baffling, complicated, long, short, and everything in between. This line bothered me: “is actually clinging to her grief as a way of prolonging it.” I don’t believe people purposely “cling” to their grief; grief clings to them. We try all sorts of ways to shed it. Some need to grieve publically, others privately. Some choose to write about their grief as a way of ordering the chaos inside them and to help others through it. The best gift you can give your friend is not judgment but presence.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I actually intended the piece to be more speculative than anything else. Grieving is indeed powerful and very idiosyncratic. The psychology of grief is very fascinating. I wrote the piece as a kind of speculation about whether or not a person might get attached to an emotional state if that state was the only connection they had to the departed loved one. In other words, could a person get attached to sadness if that sadness helped the person “hang on to” the lost individual? Most of my writing here is very speculative. I’ve always enjoyed trying to understand things and formulate explanatory hypothesizes.

  14. As a young widow and someone who recently lost her Father, I understand where your friend is coming from. There are so many ways one can analyze this, but my motto and advice to anyone grieving is always the same:
    Grieve the way you need to.
    Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.

    1. Thanks for the comment and suggestion. My goal in writing this blog was more about speculating on whether or not it is psychologically possible for someone to “hold on to” grief as a way of holding on to the lost person. In other words, if a person associates a certain emotion state with the now-gone human being, might that person want to prolong the emotional state as a way of connecting with the deceased even after he or she was gone? Again, I like to play with ideas and theories. In this case, the idea was simply connected with loss and grieving. By the way, do you blog? Is so, why not post a link here so we can all visit your site?

  15. Just my own experience on grief and loss… when my wife died 14 months ago, I felt like I lost everything. Surrounded by friends and loved ones… I felt alone. When I took stock of what I had, at the time the only thing I could come up with was this experience… even though I have a house, a vehicle, a job, friends, both parents, etc. I was searching… and flinging shit against a wall to see what would stick and make me feel better. Sharing my experience helped with that while also allowing me to hold onto Kateri for a bit longer. All I ever needed was her, and I felt like there weren’t enough people in the world to fill that void… but I needed to do something! Although it is different than losing a parent, death changes life… no matter the circumstances.

    1. I understand and feel your pain. I too have lost loved ones via death and divorce. I think it is absolutely true that we all have very idiosyncratic ways of dealing with such loss. My piece was speculative. I wanted to explore the idea of whether or not people might cling to emotional states as a way of clinging to the lost person since that emotional state is associated with the now-departed. In the case of my failed marriage, I held on to anger and a kind of bottomless grief for a long time. But a death is a lot different from an divorce. The psychology of all this is fascinating and messy. Thank you very much for sharing your story and I look forward from hearing from you again. How, may I ask, are you doing now? If that’s too personal a question, I apologize.

      1. Definitely not too personal. I started my blog 84 days into this experience as a way to hold on… as well as to maybe ease the weight of other things. I feel I am doing well. I decided to go through the process without talking to professionals or reading books or anything… and I feel I’ve maneuvered it ok. I just wanna say, personally, I do hold onto the sorrow as a way to feel “closer” to Kateri and a part of me doesn’t want that to go away…. but i don’t look to be sad about other things to try and associate it with Kateri… that would be rough… a little too much sadness for me!

      2. Again, Darren, thanks for participating in this discussion. It seems that losses are so profoundly disruptive that we look to hang on to anything that reminds us of the person or thing that was lost. I’ve seen this in my own life and now you’re confirming that this interesting psychological phenomenon is one you also recognize in your own behavior. Some healing takes a LONG time. I wish you well as your move toward greater normalcy!

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