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"The Different Types of Grief: Understanding the Complexities of Loss"

Updated: May 12

A heart drawn in the sand, partially being covered by the ocean tide
Understanding Grief

Grief is about love. Mourning is about our unexpressed love and the ongoing expressions of the love. It becomes it's own living language of love.

Understanding the depths of grief is about understanding the depths of love. No matter how much time we have with our loved ones, our friends, our careers, our pets, our hopes, our dreams, our bodies, and so forth it will never be enough time. The following is a quote I came across from actor Andrew Garfield, "Grief is all about the unexpressed love. "

What is grief?

We grieve on all levels - body, mind, spirit. Physical symptoms like excessive fatigue, tearfulness, body aches and tensions, sleep problems, brain fog and other physical manifestations are our physical body's grief reactions to the separation. Much of our body's resources become allocated to immense stress and changes in this time of loss. Grief needs physical rest and attention. The body's primal and survival instincts activate to aid working with the pain of the loss.

There are physiological changes during grief, especially in the early phases. There is increased stress response, both during the earliest moments of loss and ongoing as we are activated with reminders, stressors related with the loss. During these types of responses our brain has physiological shifts, increasing activation of the limbic system (think adrenaline and cortisol), the hippocampus (how memories are made and stored), the adrenals, kidneys and elimination systems in working with the increase of stress hormone activation. And our immune system is also impacted. These are just a few of the ways the body's demands are shifted during this intense time.

Emotionally we experience grief reactions such as intrusions, fears, anxieties, anger, sorrow, loneliness and deep sadness. Our emotional body, initially typically in a shock to numb state followed by more intense states of anger, sorrow, confusion, and a spectrum of other emotions. These emotional waves, leading toward a new rhythms that can now include grief as a part of life.

Our spirit bodies search for the new way of connection. Often there is spiritual questioning, exploration and challenge. The spiritual body seeking ways to somehow find new meaning, order and purpose in what in the early stages of grief has no coherence.

As our mind-body, spirit grieve, we are moving through a tremendous process of intense change quite understandably. These are normal reactions to the loss of love. We grieve. We grieve when we love; and we are hardwired for love. And we are able to create new internal bonds through the process of mourning.

What is mourning?

A lit candle in a tealight holder on a table
Rituals are ways we can mourn our losses aiding through expressing the grief

Mourning is a love language. It is about meeting grief's needs toward healing and learning how to live with grief as a part of our lives. Mourning is the new learning of how to express all these layers of the pain. Mourning is about how to continue loving. How do we mark, honor the love, ongoing? How do restore a new sense of feeling our wholeness even though there is also loss?

Mourning helps us restore connections, internally we can find all the ongoing gifts of the relationship. As this inward connection develops we are able to also build new loving relationships.

As we mourn, we find our ground, and are able to rise up, starting to integrate the grief with our life. Mourning is hard work. In order to mourn, we are taking the time, rituals and practices of facing the pain of the loss. Mourning is a process. Mourning brings the transformation of the new ways to continue life with what is difficult and undesired. Through mourning we transform the darkness and somehow find the the beauty of the love.

As we mourn, it is important to find ways of expressing what often does not have words. Practices like art, nature, writing stories, and making movements, or even moments of stillness are important components in addition to the tears.

Mourning needs large containers like nature, community, and the vastness of rituals and time. These are the practices and spaces that can attend to our primal needs that the grief exposes. These times of grief are precious thresholds. Mourning is ongoing because it's about the unexpressed yet ongoing love.

What is disenfranchised grief?

Recently I experienced the loss of one of my rescue dogs, Blossom. Blossom was "our" dog a rescue that my spouse and I adopted together. Each of us already having our own rescues, she was the one we fell in love with together. We don't know exactly the diagnosis of what occurred for Blossom. What was an onsetting set of symptoms quickly shifted into her last few weeks before crossing over the rainbow bridge. Luckily, my spouse and I have mourning rituals to aid with the loss and a few friends who understand about the importance of our "fur kids" and were bless with flowers and affirmations aiding with our grief.

As May is national pet month is seems appropriate to bring the important topic of validation of pet loss and I have shared a few photos of the Blossom and our morning altar practice within this section as examples of ways to work proactively with these types of loss.

Most people experience these types of losses without validation, recognition or the ongoing support. And without the mourning process, or the ability to affirmatively express our grief, this can be a cause of prolonged or delayed grief symptoms. This is what is called disenfranchised grief. Examples of disenfranchised grief, career loss, pet loss, miscarriages and stillbirth loss, loss of a child, suicide loss, divorce, spiritual losses, health and illness losses, identity losses and many more kinds of unacknowledged loss.

What happens often with these kinds of losses, is the grief has minimal avenues of moving through the mourning process. How can they without the identification of them as a normalized grief and without the support of ritual, and community. Without the mourning practices, the grief reactions remain unexpressed and without integration. Mourning involves community, or a witness that can be with someone in the grieving process. This is a large resource that supports the natural adaptive process. However when there is not the mourning rituals, the validation, affirmation, compassion and support of the legitimacy to mourn, the person is left with grief reactions with diminished nervous system capacity. Typically this happens, the grief reactions become learned neurophysiological patterns and erode our ability to move toward our well-being, or resilience. Time alone does not equate the restoration of our capacity. Disenfranchised grief, like all grief, needs the healing powers of mourning and rituals, It needs the spaces, places and people that can be witness to the mourning processes of expression.

What is prolonged or complicated grief?

The back of a person facing into an ocean sunset
Prolonged means it intensifies over time

When we cannot mourn our losses, our grief waits for us. If we are unable to move into mourning, It awaits tending in the physical body, it awaits restoring connection in emotion (we cannot just block grief, we block all emotional flow, including joy). It waits in the spiritual body's tension, typically disconnection from meaning and purpose.

This can lead to prolonged grief. Prolonged grief intensifies the grief reactions over time, rather that the more waxing and waning waves of grief that begin to soften after 1 year in adults and 6 months in children and adolescents. Prolonged grief also increases in it's impact on relationships, career, and the activities of life over time, rather than decreasing over time. Prolonged grief is sometimes called complicated grief. Typically if someone is experiencing prolonged or complicated grief, there may be need for professional interventions as there are increased risks for further mental, emotional and physical health issues. There may also be trauma that is co-existing with the grief.  Trauma and grief are not the same.  We are hardwired for adaptation to grief and loss and it is a natural process. Trauma on the other hand, is when our nervous system is "stuck" in survival responses and was not able to metabolize. Again, this is where it becomes important to speak with a qualified professional to further evaluate.

Prolonged grief, complicated grief and trauma are not voluntary responses. There is not a "failure" on the part of someone experiencing these responses. There can be many reasons this occurs and a person may need further support and assistance in working with the grief.

What is Traumatic Grief

Trauma involves loss and loss involves trauma. But that is not the same as the experiencing of what Traumatic Grief. This type of grief has symptoms like intrusive thoughts, disturbing images, feelings of powerlessness, avoidance and numbing. It also has more dysregulations in sleep, concentration, irritability and additional physical symptoms, pain or other problems. As you may be familiar these are the markers of the presence of trauma.

In speaking about trauma, trauma is a nervous system response and it is about the experiencing (rather then an "event" label). Trauma occurs when there may be too much, too fast, too soon or when there is the absence of what needed to happen. When this occurs, the nervous system remains in the stuck patterns of survival defenses. This limits our capacity during the tasks of our mourning processes, and often in seeking the support we need. In this grief experience it is important to work with qualified trauma professionals who are equipped with both grief and trauma processing.

EMDR can be used in address grief and loss, disenfranchised grief, prolonged grief and traumatic grief. The tasks of grief are our normal reaction to loss, and EMDR cannot shorten the natural process of grief. But there may be additional factors that EMDR can assist and, again especially with the more complex forms of grief.

It is a good idea to search for a provider and ask about both their levels of grief and trauma specialization. There are ways an EMDR professional may be especially helpful. You can search for a qualified EMDR provider through the professional organization at

A summary of this information, and further information about the various types of grief, and presenting symptoms can be found below.


This blog is written by Julie Cardoza, LMFT, RYT, EMDRIA Approved Consultant. This blog is for psychoeducational use and is not mental health, physical health, financial and/or legal advice.


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