Grieving The “Less-Significant” Losses

Barb, my mother-in-law, died last Friday. She has been declining for a long time so her death was not unanticipated, just a bit quicker than expected. Her death has given me another opportunity to explore grieving up close.

Bunny Grieving Loss.

My husband George flew off to Seattle the same day to view her body and pay his last respects. He told me he preferred to go alone. Since Barb is his mom, I respected his wishes. Also, there has been a lot of sibling squabbles throughout her decline, so I was more than happy to stay out of the fray.

Loss triggers the survival response of fight, flee or freeze. Grieving soothes the inner beast.

Fight is often the default response to loss in families that are unskilled in grieving. That is what happened in my family when my parents died twenty years ago — sibling feuds, alienation, and plenty of hurt feelings. We did not know how to cope. Fortunately there are more soul-healing responses to loss, but they tend to entail the release of sorrow. Three films and many years of practice later, I am starting to become more comfortable with sorrow.

I really did plan to grieve Barb’s death while George was gone. I know from experience that even the “less-significant” losses in our lives have an effect and deserve our attention. (For more about this, please read my earlier blog: Death as Snow.)

However, in spite of my good intentions, Barb’s death received little notice from me over the Labor Day weekend. Having just returned from a two-week vacation, I was easily sucked into my huge backlog of work. On Sunday morning, I awoke from a dream with total clarity about my grief denial.

Staying busy is an effective way to avoid grieving.

In retrospect, I can see that my body had been trying to get my attention all weekend. Saturday night I had two meltdowns. Yes, the Bay Area was in the grip of a serious heat wave; nonetheless, I believe my reaction had more to do with suppressed grief than the 100-degree temperature pervading my home. Also, the big toe on my left foot began to throb. According to my psychosomatic training, the big toe signifies thought and the left side is the inner world and emotions. The neck of the toe, where the pain was centered, concerns expression. Clearly some feelings were pushing for expression.

Western culture teaches us that some losses are more deserving than others. Losses like the death of a spouse or child or parent tend to get center stage. Other losses — siblings, friends, in-laws, animal companions, homes, community, work, and life dreams fall lower on the loss totem pole. In consequence, they often get buried. These losses, however, still impact the body. There may be sudden bursts of temper, self-soothing and escape activities, even mild depression. Unacknowledged, these feelings will go underground adding to the unexpressed feelings of other losses and gradually undermining both happiness and health.

The grief of these “less deserving” losses has a special name: “disenfranchised grief.”

Even though others may discount these less-significant losses, we need not. Releasing emotions can be as simple as writing down your feelings or sharing your story. Memorials are especially helpful when stories of the deceased are shared. When a memorial is not feasible or appropriate, a simple ritual may replace it. It is through attention and feelings that healing occurs.

Closure can be achieved by acknowledging the value of what or who has been lost and by completing any unfinished business. My blog Finding Forgiveness outlines some important steps for releasing resentments or regrets.

Barb came into my life around the time of my own parents’ deaths. She and her husband Tom provided ready-made parental substitutes. Having them in my life felt like a second chance to do the right thing. George was with me when my parents died. He took the experience to heart and became committed to spending as much quality time with his folks as possible. We saw a lot of them – staying with them in Washington for family holidays and visiting them at their cabin in Oregon almost every summer.

My closeness to Barb did not happen immediately. She was far more reserved than my own mom and our first family Christmas together felt strange and wrong.

That’s the way of grief. Replacement doesn’t really work. You have to do the grieving first.

Over the years, our relationship grew and deepened. On our visits, George would help his dad around the house building furniture or fixing things. Barb and I hung out cooking and talking. She was a health nut from way back so we had that in common. We also enjoyed bird watching and hiking. It was easier to broach difficult subjects like aging and end of life with her than it had been with my own mom. She appreciated both my company and conversations.

The love that developed between Barb and me was simple and uncomplicated. We did not have the history of hurts and disappointments that so often mar the relationship between parents and their birth children. Perhaps it was because I had no expectations. I was grateful for every kindness I received. There were many.

I will miss Barb — staying at her home overlooking the Puget Sound and our summers together in the middle of a pine forest. I will miss our walks, our talks, and all our adventures.

Most of all, I will miss her friendship and her love.

All losses of relationship deserve our grieving, even those that seem “less significant.”  Practice with the smaller losses often pays off when the big ones arrive.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief, Loss and Death Expert Dr. Michelle Peticolas, empowers professional women struggling with grief and loss to find peace-of-mind, closure and a life worth living. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary illustrated guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at


  1. Aggie Goldenholz says:

    I would welcome to be on your email list. A colleage shared your work and I am BLOWN AWAY. You are terrific. I am a chaplain and always looking for interesting things.
    Please include me in your emailings. Thank you

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