We experience all kinds of losses in our lives. Some, like the loss of a loved one, can fracture the foundation of our world.
Others are quieter, but still painful. A dear, close-by friend moves to another state. A work promotion takes you away from beloved co-workers to a different department. Obligations keep you from attending your best friend’s baby shower. Your mother’s bracelet, which held a lot of meaning to you, is lost.
Compared to a life-changing tragedy or transition, like death or divorce, these losses may seem relatively minor. In turn, we might not let ourselves feel upset. Or we might feel guilty about being sad over something seemingly trivial.
In psychology, this is called “disenfranchised grief,” a term coined by Kenneth Doka in the 1980s to capture losses that don’t fit into society’s standard definition of mourning. When we’re experiencing grief over a seemingly small loss, we might naturally push down our pain. But the heartache rarely goes away. Instead, the pain just multiplies or shows up in other ways.
“Pretending something didn’t impact you or denying yourself from grieving a loss because it wasn’t a matter of life and death is a disservice to your psyche,” says Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chandler, Ariz.
How so? Unhealed wounds can turn into irritability, abrupt mood changes, feeling disconnected from yourself and others, and physical symptoms, like stomachaches and headaches, Saenz-Sierzega says. Over time, you can even develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, she says, such as loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, over-thinking, diminished appetite, increased worry or fear, and difficulty sleeping.
When a loss affects you, acknowledging it protects your mental, emotional, and physical health. “We must feel to heal,” Saenz-Sierzega says.
Here are five ways to process your grief when your loss is more subtle but no less significant.
1. Cut the categories.
Instead of categorizing your loss into “small” or “major,” call it what it is: a loss. Any time you create a hierarchy of loss, it becomes tougher to acknowledge and process what’s upsetting you. “If it’s something that’s disrupting your life for a certain period of time, and it hurts, the odds are you’re enduring a loss,” Saenz-Sierzega says.
2. Don’t downplay your loss.
When mourning a loss that is less than earth shattering, we commonly minimize our feelings by adding caveats or disclaimers, Saenz-Sierzega says. You might tell yourself that it could’ve been worse, you should be grateful, or your loss is nothing compared to someone else’s more serious circumstances.
Instead of dismissing your pain—and thereby yourself—Saenz-Sierzega suggests simply saying, “This is a loss, and I am sad” (or whatever emotions you’re experiencing).
3. Create a releasing ritual.
Creating a ritual around your loss is a powerful way to honor it. A ritual involves taking purposeful action that acknowledges your pain and sets you free from it, Saenz-Sierzega says. Releasing rituals are highly personal, so it’s important to do what resonates with you.
Rituals can be involved or simple, Saenz-Sierzega notes. She gives a few examples:
- Shred a college rejection letter
- Bury a time capsule that contains related mementos
- Write a goodbye letter, poem, or song about your loss
- Scream into a pillow
- Paint rocks and then leave them along a walking path
4. Connect with others.
Grieving your loss with people who truly understand can be tremendously comforting and empowering, Saenz-Sierzega says. You might try finding support groups for your specific loss, whether they meet in person or through social media.
You can also directly communicate your needs to friends and family. For example: “I’m having a tough time today. Can we take a walk together?” If you’d like additional support for processing your pain, consider seeing a therapist.
5. Make space to heal.
“Just like it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve, it’s equally important to give yourself permission to heal,” Saenz-Sierzega says. She reminds us that loss is a natural part of life, alongside recovery from loss. But recovery doesn’t mean forgetting or no longer caring about what happened. It means moving forward.
How do you know when you’re ready? According to Saenz-Sierzega, you might find yourself not needing to talk about the loss as much, thinking about it less often, or feeling less reactive when thoughts do arise. Or you might feel ready.
When that time comes, you can journal about what you’re grateful for or looking forward to, Saenz-Sierzega says. You also might reflect on what you’ve learned or whether you’d like to make a change, such as creating a new habit or practicing a new skill.
Above all, when any loss arises that affects you, remember: “If it matters to you, it matters. Because you matter,” Saenz-Sierzega says.