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The stress of grief

By Emily Krekelberg

Three shadowed figures looking out into the clouded sky
Most people accept the well-known five stages of grief as a guideline for the healing process. The problem with this is those five stages don’t necessarily fit in all types of loss. These stages also assume that at some point, the grief will end. In some situations, grief can be disrupted for a period. In others, the grief may last for years. Grief can have a profound impact on our health, both mental and physical, so it’s crucial that we accept and confront it. This is especially true for youth. Identifying youth experiencing grief and providing them support for these complex feelings can help them develop resiliency early.  

Ambiguous loss

Seeking support for our grief can sometimes be difficult, especially if the grief we feel is not seen or recognized by others. A clear loss like death can make it easier to grieve more socially. Some losses, however, are not as clear. Ambiguous loss is when a loss is not clear, and thus may not be validated by others. The lack of clarity comes from an incongruence between the physical and psychological loss of something. In a clear loss, we physically and psychologically lose a person, place, or thing. In ambiguous loss, something may be physically gone, but maintains a psychological presence (when a loved one no longer communicates with their family); or something is psychologically absent, but still physically present (when a child’s relationship with their parents gets neglected when work or something else takes precedence). Because grief can remain “hidden,” we may not realize our stress or poor health is being caused by it.

Building resilience

When our grief feels like it will never go away, we can support ourselves and others by building resilience. Dr. Pauline Boss, the pioneer of ambiguous loss theory, recommends various strategies for building resilience during loss:
  1. Finding meaning allows us to internalize meaning from the loss; we can find meaning through talking with others, adapting our rituals, and spirituality and forgiveness. 
  2. Revising attachment is about changing the importance of what was lost, grieving it, and celebrating what you still have. Developing and redeveloping relationships is a great way to revise attachment after a loss. 
  3. Discovering hope lets us be comfortable with our ambiguity and create hope for the future. Hope can be found in laughter, spirituality, and defining what we can control. 

Grief is a big, challenging topic. Like most feelings, it is experienced differently by each person. Have patience with others as they grieve and have patience with yourself. If you are experiencing grief, whether it’s clear or ambiguous, find support and take the time to sit in your grief. Feeling our grief, rather than ignoring it, is the best way to cope with it. If others around you are grieving, find ways you can support them. Be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. In farming, we confront stress every day, and sometimes that stress is grief.
In your work with young people, how might ambiguous loss show up? What ambiguous losses for youth may be related to the COVID-19 pandemic? What steps can youth workers take to acknowledge the hidden grief youth might feel?

-- Emily Krekelberg, Extension educator
Farm safety and health

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  1. If looking for a good book on grief, the Libraries did a Read this Book feature on grief.


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