The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of sheltering his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” (Rilke, 1907/1995). Those who grieve the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or something that was valued may do the same. Grievers often maintain a silence around their losses. So much of grief is enveloped in the silence of personal memories that, at any given time, it may present only as sensations that seem impossible to convey in words. Yet the tendency to keep thoughts and feelings to oneself is not necessarily a maladaptive coping strategy. In fact, we may need to recognize silent remembering as beneficial or adaptive to those who have suffered from loss.
Grief as Personal and Silently Held
Grief is uniquely personal. Responses to loss are as distinctive as the individuals who experience them. There may be some generalizable similarities and patterns among people, but there is no template for the grief experience. Our memories, our relationship to our losses, and the culture in which we were raised influence how we respond and adjust.
Although death ends the boundary of a life, it does not end a relationship (Hall, 2014). The perception that a person has “moved on” from loss may have little to do with their feelings. Many people continue to hold silent bonds with the deceased. Inner dialogues with the dead are often part of the silence they keep. Some mourners may keep bonds with deceased loved ones to themselves, considering a connection with someone who has died as sacred, personal, or even shameful.
While appearing as otherwise perfectly happy people, the bereaved may compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings. In collusion with friends, relatives, therapists, and researchers who may not inquire, this silence among grievers is part of our elusive understanding of grief. We may ask how someone is doing after a loss, but once they appear to have resumed day-to-day life, we forget to ask or do not probe. Many adults and children who have experienced loss hide from others what they remember and feel for many different reasons, including avoiding judgment or being perceived as burdensome. As a result, they often convey facts rather than emotions about their loss; that is, they can say what has happened while withholding what they feel.
We now have some contrary evidence challenging the assumption that to achieve a successful and healthy recovery, grief-stricken individuals must talk about their grief (Cabeza & St. Jacques, 2007). Recent work on loss and bereavement has found that unspoken memory—the withholding of autobiographical memories about loss and the departed loved one—can preserve an existing identity, and not sharing can give us a sense of purpose in the face of grief (Baddeley & Singer, 2010). This suggests that we should not view silence in response to loss as a form of denial. Unspoken memories can be sources of stability, growth, or resistance in response to the demand for change that loss imposes on us (Baddeley & Singer, 2010). Moreover, many people do not want others to perceive them only as someone whose grief has become tantamount to an identity.
Grief Is Present in Many Places
Death is an obvious loss. However, we may unknowingly experience grief in many situations where, instead, we believe we are angry, indignant, resentful, remorseful, regretful, envious, or jealous, to name some of the emotions that may mask grief.
We do not usually consider grief as a response to ending a romantic relationship because the “lost” loved one is still in the world. Moreover, those who grieve a failed relationship may believe they are not entitled to feel as they do and anticipate embarrassment if their continued attachment is exposed (“What? You’re still hung up on them?”). Distress (anguish) and shame that create grief signal the disconnection of one human from another. Although shame motivates us to hide, it also urges us to repair broken bonds: To seek reconnection. A continued interest in reconnecting with the lost other becomes emotionally expressed either negatively or positively: Quietly sad or angry, the heartbroken griever may want reunion or revenge. Grievers from heartbreak are not dispassionate and may long for relief. Since emotions make us care, indifference is the opposite of love and a sense of connection, which is sometimes hard to find.
Many silent grievers are those who have loved ones suffering from cognitive decline. Caring for a parent or partner who is psychologically absent but physically present may be more easily expressed as stressful, while the experience of grief in “losing” them remains hidden. Caring for a parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s may activate childhood memories of their presence. Yet those who have memories of parental neglect or mistreatment may find themselves grieving for the childhood they never had as they empathically care for a parent who could not adequately nurture them.
Women who long to have children but are unable to conceive, along with childless men who want offspring, are among those who silently grieve for what could have been. The powerful desire to become a parent, or the idealization of parenthood, often makes deriving positive meaning from such situations impossible.
Grief is often hidden when it is perceived as inappropriate or socially stigmatized. For example, post-abortion grief may remain unexpressed by both women and men. Women often encounter disempowerment and the dismissal of emotional pain resulting from abortion (Rowe, 2023). In a previous post, I noted studies where grief was one of many common experiences among men whose partners have an induced abortion. Moreover, the human capacity to imagine—to create images stored in memory as the reality of a child—both prior to and after the abortion, may later haunt the individual as grief over lost opportunities or dreams (for example, see Mayo, 2020).
Narrative Risk and the Silence of Grief
Conveying a narrative of losing someone or something important can relieve us, but it may also activate grief. Describing a narrative about loss brings to the surface various autobiographical, emotional, and semantic memories that haunt us (Cabeza & St. Jacques, 2007).
It’s easy to see why people in Western culture may silently hold their grief: If they do otherwise, they risk social isolation. Researchers have found that regulating negative emotions tends to foster a griever’s connection to others, allowing them to gain support from others (Harber & Pennebaker, 1992). But because negative emotions can create discomfort or stress in the listener (at least in Western culture), emotions such as distress or anguish may limit potential support for the griever (Bonanno, 2012). Therefore, emotional avoidance and self-deceptive processes can be a way of successfully coping in the face of the pain of loss (Keltner & Bonanno, 1997). Unfortunately, people who express sadness often encounter a negative response, either because someone tries to “make them happy,” changes the subject, or just shrinks away. Rightly or wrongly, grievers can come to expect such a response.
For example, a study of marital loss in midlife found that smiling and genuine laughter in the bereaved while they discussed their deceased spouses, resulted in better relationships with others and evoked compassion and the desire to comfort, as opposed to those who displayed only non-genuine or social laughter (Bonanno, 2012; Keltner & Bonanno, 1997). In Eastern cultures, where there tends to be a more dominant belief in the deceased’s continued presence and a continuity between the living and the dead, the pressure to express positive emotions and “get over” one’s grief is less prominent (Bonanno, 2012).
The Silent Grief of Children
Children often mourn silently, and somehow, they come to believe that grief is something we process and get over. The silently held aspects of grief, especially among children, have perhaps obscured our understanding of what actually takes place: They remember and mourn yet are unlikely to tell us about it. Much like adults remember the idealized version of a loved one who has died, children also tend to idealize a deceased parent.
Idealized or not, in a child’s creative mind, a deceased parent is the one the child knows and whose image continues to guide the child’s life, for better or worse. Early theorists did not consider that children who lose a parent may continue their bond with the parent long after they acknowledge to themselves that the parent will never return. Using imagination and imagery, many children silently keep their loved ones close in their lives, forever.
Speaking of Silent Grief
My uncle Orazio, a masculine Sicilian, happened to be a good role model when discussing the departed. That is, except for the love of his life, whom he had lost in a horrific automobile accident, which led me to ache for him. He tended to bring up every other dead person, such as my mother or his mother, even when they were not the conversation topic. With tremendous dignity, and with tears in his eyes, Uncle Orazio would recount a memory of what that person would have said, what they had done in a similar situation, or anything else about them that happened to come into his mind. Then, he would comfortably move on to something else. The deceased and what they would have contributed to the discussion were part of the conversation. This allowed listeners—or at least myself as a young adolescent—a sense of a loved one’s presence, the ways they thought or felt despite their absence. Even so, I often wondered why his most profound experience of loss was kept to himself.
Excerpted, in part, from my book, Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One. For more information, please visit my website marylamia.com
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Bonanno, G. A. (2012). Emotional dissociation, self-deception, and adaptation to loss. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Traumatology of grieving: Conceptual, theoretical, and treatment foundations (pp. 89–108). Routledge.
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Keltner, D., & Bonanno, G. A. (1997). A study of laughter and dissociation: Distinct correlates of laughter and smiling during bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 687–702. https://doi.org/ 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
Mayo, G. (2020). Almost daddy: The forgotten story. Independently published.
Rilke, R. M. (1995). Love song. In S. Mitchell (Trans.), Ahead of all parting: The selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (pp. 29–30). Random House. (Original work published 1907)
Rowe, L. (6/24/2023). Stigmas Don’t End with Abortion. Some Women Need Help Afterward. The Messenger. Opinion. https://themessenger.com/opinion/stigmas-dont-end-with-abortion-some-wo…