Lurking Grief, Years After Loss: 3 Steps to Reduce its Power over You

If a society has no word for grief, does that mean people living in that society would feel no grief?

This question came up during a TOK class discussion. I later mentioned it in my book Own Your Thoughts OWN YOUR LIFE: A Revealing Guide to Clarify Your Thinking and Transform Your Life.

In the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class where the question came up, we had been discussing theories of language. One student brought up the example of a tribe that had no word for grief. Robert Levy, an anthropologist, studied this tribe on the Society Islands of Tahiti in the 1960s. He discovered they had no words for “grief” or “sorrow.”

The islanders described their feelings as being “sick” or “strange.” They had no definite words to specifically address the feelings that accompanied loss.

View of island

The answer to my introductory question is, "Of course they would feel grief." They just didn't know how to label what they were feeling. That meant they would have difficulty expressing those particular emotions.

It also meant that their community had developed little in terms of rituals or methods of expressing and alleviating the strange sick feelings that came with their sense of loss. Levy observed that this particular island had an unusually high rate of suicide. He attributed this to the their inability to deal effectively with their emotions of grief and sorrow.

Lurking Grief, Years After Loss: 3 Steps to Reduce its Power over You

Robert Levy coined the term hypocognition to identify the inability of a society to provide an appropriate word to express a feeling or experience. (Hypo is the Greek prefix for under or below. Cognition is the mental process of gaining knowledge through our senses, thoughts, and experiences.)

Another word that came up in our discussion of language was schadenfreude. One student who had studied for a year in Germany came back with this word. He explained that it was a common emotion with no equivalent word in English. Schadenfreude is “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” ( Clearly, we do not have enough words to represent all our feelings.

Lurking Grief

Another feeling we seem to have no specific word for is the grief people feel long after the loss of their loved ones. Although this discussion is focused on loss through death of a loved one, we can also apply this feeling to people we once cared for but lost through divorce or estrangement.

This type of grief is not like the gripping ache we feel immediately after loss. It arrives years later. We may no longer feel the frequent overwhelming waves of grief, yet another type of grief creeps in. It sneaks up when we think we have recovered and moved forward in our lives. Out of nowhere, we begin feeling sad, lonely, lost without immediately knowing the cause. It's not the obvious wave of grief that surges over you for months after your loss. It’s more like a dis-ease that builds uncomfortably in the body and fosters an underlying mood.

Quote with candle burning

When we focus on it, we realize we are sad or irritated but are uncertain why. If we examine the feeling more deeply and ask why and where it comes from, the answer often evades us until we realize the date on the calendar. We may suddenly realize we are just a few days away from the anniversary of our loss, or that person’s birthday, or perhaps the anniversary of another special day we shared yearly.

As far as I know, there is no specific word for this kind of grief and we have no specific social rituals to help us through it. The support we may have had with mourning immediately after a death has subsided. Friends and family members may send each other cards or flowers for a few years after the loss. What do we do, though, if this sense of loss continues to creep upon us unexpectedly years after we think we have moved on. What do we do then?

Many people just suffer and feel depressed. A wise friend saved me from this yearly struggle from the beginning. The first year after I lost my husband to cancer, she told me to acknowledge and memorialize the day by doing something special. For her, it was buying orchids in remembrance of a parent who had passed. That simple act continues to help her through the healing process each year.

I guess I had already been doing that for years in honor of an older sister who had died when I was just a toddler. Although young, I later felt a sense of loss that I never understood but gradually became consciously aware of in relation to my disappointment at not having an older sister around to support me. When I started buying poinsettias at Christmas time in her memory (she was born on Christmas day), I began to feel a sense of relief and healing love.

Orchids on left side and poinsettia on the right

Nine years after losing my husband, I still feel that nagging, creeping sense of sadness. This year, it hit me quite underhandedly several days before what would have been our 32nd anniversary. I caught myself feeling sad but not understanding why.

Step One: Acknowledge and Identify the Feeling

This is the first step: Acknowledge your feeling even if you do not know what is causing it. Label the feeling if you can. This will be the beginning when you take control over it rather than allowing it to continue to control you.

How do you label the feeling? Perhaps grief? Sorrow? Loss? Emptiness? Maybe your grief returns as anger, agitation, guilt, or fear.

As far as I know, we do not have a name for this long-term stage of grief. I have been dealing with this type of grief for nine years. Although I learned to consciously acknowledge the feeling several years ago, I did not know how to label it or even how to describe it. Now, I realize people have a valid need to label it in order to verbalize and explain it. I know others suffer from this emotion as well, but many do not know how to identify or deal with it.


This type of grief definitely needs a name, a label.


Diane Dreher, PhD, writing for Psychology Today, points out that words have a healing power when they can be accessed through labeling, writing, and reading. Research studies in neuroscience have revealed “the powerful effect words have on our brains.” Studies by Lieberman, et al. have shown that conscious awareness of our emotions, such as grief, sorrow, anger, and sadness, and the ability to label those feelings can reduce activation within the amygdala. When we label emotions, we begin to move the tangle of underlying feelings in our gut to the higher order of language and meaning in our brains.

Healing begins when we become more mindful and consciously aware.


At first, I thought of this long-term grief as “shadow grief,” a grief that attaches to our gut and follows us through the years. In the first year, grief feels like waves that come crashing in, with overpowering strength. Gradually it subsides. Over time grief fades and becomes more of a shadow than a wave.

Waves crashing into rocks in a stormy sea

To confront this shadow grief with less fear and sorrow, we must bring it out into the light. By identifying the reality of the feeling, we acknowledge this as a common emotion that comes with loss.

Yet, “shadow” is not quite strong enough. Shadows are harmless; grief does not feel harmless. “Lurking” is a more accurate description. Grief tends to lurk in the shadows for years after our loss.

"Lurking Grief” often has a devious power over us. Once we have acknowledged, identified, and labeled this grief, however, we can begin to reduce its power.

Step Two: Recognize the Source of the Lurking Grief

Next, it's important to look for the source. What is making you feel sad, lost, lonely, agitated, fearful, or possibly even angry?  


This year it took me a couple of days to determine what was making me feel so sad and edgy. Then suddenly, I understood. I became aware of the date on the calendar.

It was only three days before our anniversary, and I had done nothing in terms of planning how to honor the memory of that date. That realization itself was the  trigger for the healing process.

I started by acknowledging that lurking grief was the underlying problem. Many signs had been popping up for a week or two, but I had been ignoring them. It wasn’t until I became consciously aware of the calendar date that I could recognize the emotion for what it was. At that point, I allowed myself to recall memories of our happy lives before my husband became ill. That was when the lurking grief began to have less power over me.

What helped even more was sharing my feelings with trusted friends. Sharing our emotion with others helps us put words to the feeling and gives us more power over the emotion.

Woman talking to her friends

Step Three: Plan an Event or Action to Honor the Date

Although as a society we do not have a label or customs for this specific type of grief, I believe it is important to our mental health to acknowledge the feeling, and to honor the memory of the person we loved and lost.

If this happens to you, I recommend that you set up special events or activities to occur on the significant anniversary dates when the lurking grief comes out of the shadows. Choose something that will honor your memory of the person you loved and lost. Let that activity or event symbolize some way that connects you to the memory of your time together or something constructive that she or he would do.

For example, the first year after the loss of my husband, I went for a long walk along a creek near where he had taken our daughter for her graduation photos. My girlfriend brought flowers and we tossed them ceremoniously along the creek bed. I shed a few tears and was thankful to have the support of my friend beside me.

The next year, I planned a trip to the mountains near an area where we had taken many happy weekend hikes when our daughter was young. It was too snowy and muddy to take the hikes, but just being in the area brought back happy memories and healing time for reflection. I wanted time alone so that I could think and feel and remember. I was still trying to recover from months of being the primary caregiver.

A few years ago, I made a new friend who was suffering from the loss of her husband. After considering various ideas, she decided to place a headstone or bench on a special hill on their ranch. I don’t know if she actually carried out the plan, but I observed that it gave her relief simply to be doing something to honor his memory.

Another option may be to plan a small dinner party with people who are interested and willing to listen to and share stories about the departed loved one. At some point, you may decide to move the conversation in a direction that will help you to continue moving forward instead of being swallowed up by grief. Don’t worry if you feel like crying or if you become emotional. Releasing your feelings is not only acceptable but is also healthy.


On the other hand, if your grief comes in the form of anger, it would be better to find a space to be alone where you can scream or howl out the rage without hurting yourself or others. Many people have found the scream to be a powerful form of release. Once expelled, they feel more at peace.


This year, writing this article has been my healing action. Sharing it with others is my way to connect and network with others. It makes me think of my husband. He was especially strong at networking and encouraging others to make their dreams a reality. He intuitively understood the power of words and how verbalizing a dream can help bring it into reality. Friends and family members loved sharing their ideas with him. He gave them validation with both words and actions.

Man writing

Through writing, you can reduce troubling thoughts and emotions to mere symbols on paper, where you can modify them, add to them, expand upon them, or delete them altogether. Simply by writing them down, you begin to identify and understand them. Overall, you have taken control. Many people find the experience deeply meaningful even if they do not share the writing with others. Often this type of therapy also results in better health, both mentally and physically. It does not have to be shared.

If you are not a writer, another option is reading. Reading poetry can be therapeutic.The words of others can touch your spirit and help you work through lingering grief. I personally love to escape into a good book where the story carries me away while helping me feel, acknowledge, and identify my own emotions through the characters.

An excellent book that helped me through the first years of grief is Healing through Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman. Each page is labeled chronologically for every day in the calendar year. It includes a thoughtful quote, followed by a healing meditation, or reflective comments, to help readers acknowledge and work through their loss.

Next time you wish to send healing wishes to someone who has recently suffered a loss, consider this book. This is a sample page from the book that was particularly helpful to me during my first year of loss. It speaks to me still many years later.

Of course, if writing and reading are not activities that seem viable to you in dealing with your lurking grief, perhaps music or a movie could provide similar healing powers. Choose a good movie that reminds you of your time with your departed loved one. Prepare a snack and hot chocolate (avoid alcohol—you want to deal with your emotions, not drown them out), and then sit down in a comfortable place and allow yourself to begin releasing the tension and the grief.

Movies, music, books, poetry, and writing that provide you an opportunity for catharsis are valuable tools for healing. Catharsis is the process of releasing strong or repressed emotions. It may result in tears or anger-releasing howls. It is important to find healthy ways to release the emotions that sneak in, build up, and accompany lurking grief.


Find Relief

You can move forward again once you have faced and released the lurking grief.

How can you do this? Begin by refusing to let it continue to lurk in the shadows.  Acknowledge and identify it. Label it or spend a little time describing it, either verbally to a trusted friend or in writing for yourself or that trusted friend. Next, determine the source of the interrelated emotions that come with this lurking grief. Demystify them. Recognize them for what they are.

Finally, take action to reduce its power over you. Plan an event or activity where you can honor the memory of your loss, release the emotion, and begin moving forward with your life again.

Know that there is still meaning in your life. Find it. Live it. Share it. Above all, find peace, Divine Love, and Joy.

Quote with eagle flying through the sky


Diane E. Dreher, PhD, “The Healing Power of Words,” Psychology Today, Nov. 18, 2019


Inglis-Arkell, Esther. “Can You Feel Something If You Don’t Have a Word for It? Gizmodo, June 27, 2014.


Levy, Robert I. (1975). Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom,S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.


Neal, Teresa S. Own Your Thoughts OWN YOUR LIFE: A Revealing Guide to Clarify Your Thinking and Transform Your Life. Covenant Books, 2021.