Absent Grief: Understanding a Multi-Sided Response

Published January 8, 2021
Woman sitting alone in dark room

Absent grief occurs when an individual experiences a loss and does not have, or has very few grief related responses. Absent grief is thought to occur because of denial of the loss; however there are several reasons why someone may experience this type of grief pattern.

Absent Grief

While absent grief may come across as unconventional, keep in mind that just because you don't see any signs or symptoms of grief doesn't mean someone isn't experiencing them.

Signs and Symptoms of Absent Grief

Signs and symptoms of absent grief include:

  • Going about your day-to-day life as if nothing has happened
  • Experiencing small pockets of grief related feelings, but then feeling overtaken by denial of the loss
  • Feeling shocked regarding the loss and having a hard time wrapping your head around it for a prolonged period
  • Not showing any signs or symptoms of grieving whatsoever
  • Forgetting about the loss often and not feeling connected to the notion that the loss is real

Examples of Absent Grief

Examples of situations that may lead to absent grief:

  • Experiencing anticipatory grief for someone who is in hospice care, then experiencing absent grief once they pass away
  • Not grieving after an abusive and/or absent parent or caregiver passes away (may have already grieved the loss of having a healthy relationship with a parent in general, so this specific loss may not trigger feelings of grief)
  • Having another condition that impacts your emotional processing such as traumatic brain injury and dementia

Why Don't I Feel Anything When Someone Dies?

There are many reasons why you may not experience an emotional reaction when someone passes away. Keep in mind that feeling numbness, shock, and/or denial are emotional responses to loss. Reasons why you may not experience an emotional reaction you may have anticipated:

  • You may be in shock and experiencing prolonged denial
  • You may be consciously or unconsciously attempting to avoid painful emotions from surfacing because the loss was so significant
  • You may not feel ready to process the loss yet
  • You may have experienced anticipatory grief due to the circumstances and feel as if you have already experienced the majority of your grieving process
  • You may feel pressure to grieve based on the type of relationship, but in reality, the relationship may not be significant enough for you to experience a full blown grieving process (for example a parent who abandoned you during early childhood who passed away may not trigger a grieving process for you)
  • You may feel as if you have already grieved and feel relief when someone who was suffering passes away

Complicated Grief Versus Absent Grief

Complicated grief, now referred to persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a diagnosis found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V with symptoms such as:

  • Intense longing to be with the deceased individual
  • Hyper-focusing on the loss
  • Recurring and intense thoughts and feelings regarding the loss
  • Thoughts about being with the deceased individual again
  • Symptoms must be present six months after the loss

Absent grief, while a valid response to loss, is not a formal diagnosis, and while it was considered a type of complicated grief in the past, terminology has since changed.

Absent Grief Versus Inhibited Grief

Absent grief is the absence of grief related symptoms and inhibited grief occurs when grief related symptoms are consciously blocked and subsequently result in other manifestations. Both absent and inhibited grief can look the same to others on the outside, as both types of grieving patterns don't express outward signs of grief.

What Are Five Types of Loss That Can Cause Grief?

While any loss that feels significant to you can lead to grief related feelings, some categories of loss include:

  • Significant relationship lost due to death or other reason
  • Health related changes that negatively impact you or others
  • Job or schooling related changes
  • Major life changes such as a divorce, moving, losing a home
  • Loss of income, major lifestyle changes due to financial shifts

Understanding Absent Grief

Experiencing absent grief can feel confusing and may leave you wondering why you may be having this type of reaction. Know that there are many valid reasons why you may be experiencing absent grief, and if you choose to seek additional support, you can connect with a therapist who specializes in grief and/or a grief support group.

Absent Grief: Understanding a Multi-Sided Response