Let's face it, when your spouse dies, you're devastated. You must come to grips with the fact that your world has been shattered; your life will never be the same.
The death of your spouse can bring on crushing levels of emotional pain, disbelief, and shock. There are no words that can adequately describe your sense of loss and sorrow.
Often, you are simply numb from the experience and may feel overwhelmed by all of the tasks and additional responsibilities you must now shoulder alone. Whether your spouse's death was "expected" or "unexpected", your grief is palpable and immeasurable.
But, there is another little known form of grief that may have also been lurking in your life - invisible and unknown - called Existential Grief. You may not be familiar with this insidious form of grief, even though it is often staring you right in the face.
Why? You cannot "see it" because it tends to hide in your "emotional blindspot"; below conscious awareness. This form of grief can be triggered when you lose your beloved: surfacing as a byproduct of the tangible loss of your spouse as you grieve.
What Is Existential Grief?
In essence, although it causes "background anxiety" and is emotionally painful just like normal grief, Existential Grief is intangible in nature. Unlike with the death of your spouse, there is no physical body to point to.
Your sense of loss is "invisible" and can be considered to be a form of complicated grieving. The symptoms of Existential Grief may overlap with those of normal grieving, but the key signs are that even as time passes, you continue to have a vague and uneasy feeling sense that "something is not right" or the experience having a "gap" or "hole" in your Being.
Typically, underlying all causes of Existential Grief are a sense of betrayal of trust; a global collapse in your identity (as a wife or husband), where you may feel adrift without a sense of community; and a loss in faith of a Higher Power for good, e.g. God.
There are many other causes of Existential Grief such as a loss of your sense of your life's purpose; loss of faith that your life has meaning; loss of faith that your individual actions matter or can make a difference in the world; and, loss of a sense of identifying with being from a particular place.
Children who grew up in families that moved regularly, often have trouble maintaining friendships or intimate relationships because their sense of safe attachment to others has been adversely affected.
Once these individuals reach adulthood, they may not realize that their vague sense of unease may be due to Existential Grief arising out of not having a real or singular place that they feel that they are from. Or, they may be fearful of deep relational bonding with others, since experience has taught them that relationships are ephemeral or fleeting.
They may fear commitment but not know why. Their fear is grounded in the knowledge that if they bond tightly with others, they must leave them, these repeated friendship losses can almost be too much to bear.
Think of having to move from one country to another, and you cannot take your family dog or cat that you raised as a puppy or kitten with you; you must ALWAYS leave them behind.
Your grief may be off the chart; even if it is unspoken!
Many children of military families have had this experience growing up. So too do children of diplomats and foreign service workers.
Children of mid and upper-level employees may also be suffering from Existential Grief as one or both parents were transferred around the globe along with their families.
In the Existential Grief terrain, IBM stands for I've Been Moved!
Additionally, if you have a family history of being homeless, or been forced to go to prep school against your will, or, have lived in multiple states and/or countries by the time you're 18, then you may be an Existential Grief candidate.
Other signature causes of Existential Grief can be the realization that you have been regularly gaslighted or faked out in your interactions with family, friends or co-workers; or, that a bond of trust has been broken by your best friend as the secrets you told them in confidence, have become known.
Symptoms of Existential Grief
Although at first, the symptoms of Existential Grief may appear to overlap with those of normal grieving after the passing of your spouse; even so, this form of grief is truly separate and distinct in that the feeling sense of loss you are experiencing is indeed intangible in nature.
How can you know whether you may be suffering from Existential Grief? Below are some of the symptoms:
Global Sense of Anxiety of Unknown Origins
Sense of Aloneness and Loneliness Even When with a Group of People
Systemic Low-Level Stress Burnout and Fatigue from Unidentifiable Causes
Vague Sense of Unease that Things Are Not Right
Experiencing Existential Grief
Existential Grief is a widespread, though often, unacknowledged aspect of human experience regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, culture or religion.
Within the African American community, this form of grief can be severely compounded by issues of racism, sexism, discrimination, and economic circumstances. Take a look at the list below. You may be surprised to learn that you have already experienced one or more of these issues in your life!
Can you relate to any of these feelings?
A sense of not "fitting in"
A sense of being "different"
A sense of being told that you are "difficult" because your standards are unrealistic or too high
A sense of being continually "misunderstood" or told that you are "wrong"
A relational mismatch of beliefs and values with family members, friends or colleagues on your job
A lost sense of belonging to any group or community
A lost sense of identifying with being from a particular place
A detached or dissociated feeling that nothing really matters
A sense of betrayal and lack of trust among family, friends, and colleagues
A global collapse of your identity as a loving spouse, sister, brother, mother, father, etc.
An eternal sense of being a stranger even in familiar surroundings.
Do You Have Existential Grief?
In order to begin assessing whether Existential Grief is negatively impacting your life, you'll need to take two steps backward to review your life: before you met your spouse; while with your spouse; and your life now, without your spouse.
Unfortunately, there is no "quick fix" or short cut for recovering from this form of grief.
What is required is that you go inside yourself, to reflect upon your life.
The path to recovery is unique for each of us since we have individual histories; however, you can start on the road to recovery by seeking out professional help from a therapist or grief coach.
A key challenge you'll face in resolving and recovering from Existential Grief is that you have to overcome its tendency to mask itself as "something else."
Since recalling "long-forgotten" memories and dredging up past trauma events from your psyche can be messy, working with an experienced therapist or grief coach can help you transit the terrain of your subconscious safely.
The Big Existential Grief Questions You Must Answer for Yourself
Successfully transiting and recovering from Existential Grief requires that you honestly ask yourself the big questions. Of course, if you're not the reflective type, that can be scary! This means there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from yourself!
A helpful way to lessen any fear you may have about doing this is to reframe your recovery as a form of creative growth. Of course, most likely, if it were your decision to make, you would have planned things differently!
Who could ever wish to be without their loving spouse?
Nevertheless, here are some sample big Existential Grief questions you’ll have to face head-on in the recovery process on your road to healing:
What’s the meaning of life?
Does my life have meaning?
What is my life’s purpose?
Does Existential Grief underlie my fears?
What am I afraid of?
Why am I afraid?
When am I afraid?
Where in my body do I feel the most fear?
Is my feeling of fear located in the same place I feel my anxiety?
Where does my grief live in my body?
Where does my sense of sadness or disappointment reside in my body?
What part of me is afraid?
What part of me is confident?
What part of me is fearless?
When do I experience Peace or Peace of Mind?
How can I regularly experience a state of Peace or Peace of Mind?
What supports do I need to resolve my Existential Grief?
How can I prevent my Fear of Success from sabotaging my recovery?
What will my life look like when I achieve recovery ad healing?
9 Stages of Healing Existential Grief
Stage 1: Awareness that something is not right. In this Stage, you acknowledge core feelings of emptiness or sense of aloneness…even when you are with friends or in a group. Your bodily felt-sense is that you have a “gap” or “hole” in your Being. Your experience is one of being continually “misunderstood” or “wrong,” not fitting in or trying to ignore or fight off vague waves of anxiety of unknown origin. Additionally, you may have had the experience of being “different” or an eternal sense of being a stranger even in familiar surroundings.
For some others, you may experience a global collapse of your identity or experience your day to day feeling dissociated – that nothing really matters. If you’ve experienced a deep or sinister level of betrayal, your ability to trust others may have been damaged or lost, and the world no longer feels like a safe place for you. Sometimes, due to being continually bullied, rejected or unfairly criticized, you may also not feel any sense of community or belonging to any group which is meaningful or satisfying.
This deep sense of loss and betrayal of trust can result in alienation, cynicism, and a loss of faith in God or a Higher Power for good, e.g. "How could God allow my spouse to be taken away from me? We're good people. We didn't deserve this. IT'S SO UNFAIR!"
Stage 2: Moving past denial. In the second stage of healing, you fully grasp the fact that unresolved Existential Grief may be a huge iceberg issue in your life that is sabotaging your efforts to find your place in the world and your life’s purpose.
This entails engaging in deep levels of reflection including writing down and examining your dream content for symbolic and archetypal clues that point to the causation of your underlying distress. These methods allow you to see how deeply you are associated with your pain body – in order to make progress, you must begin the process of gaining more objectivity by becoming less associated with your emotional pain. For some people, this means becoming more detached from their pain; for others, they must become dissociated from their pain in order to obtain a more “objective” view.
The bottom line is that when you move past denial, you gain a clearer picture of how Existential Grief has been holding you back. It’s almost as if you’ve taken off blinders or the mud obstructing your internal view of yourself has been removed. Just like when driving an automobile, we all have blind spots in our psyche, personality, and personal habits – things about ourselves that we do not know about ourselves or cannot see about ourselves but others do know and see. Acknowledging the existence of your own Existential
Grief can give you a level of clarity that you may never have experienced before.
The revelation can feel like a “Eureka” moment or like having the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders!
Stage 3: Making a commitment to resolve your Existential Grief. Once you have identified Existential Grief as a key trauma source, you must commit to recovering from this form of grief in order to heal.
Set a target date to begin but remember to be gentle with yourself since a key aspect of raising your self-image is learning self-compassion.
Remember, there is no one size fits all here – no clear path to follow – each person is a unique individual and must find their own way based upon their personal history, personality, temperament and ability to stick to a goal. At this stage, it’s important to get a clear image in your mind or sense of what recovery looks like. Keep working on your vision or imagery until you achieve clarity. You’ll know when you’re there when you “feel it” in your body – this is often experienced as an “ontological shift” or sense of knowingness that you’re on the right track.
Stage 4: Finding a compatible therapeutic approach or method. Since transiting the terrain of Existential Grief can feel like you’re trying to navigate some type of unknown or unfriendly maze, it is often a good idea to seek out the services of an experienced therapist or professional coach skilled in Grief Therapy. Of course, it is also possible to recover from Existential Grief on your own if you are the deep, insightful, reflective type, but regardless of your approach, you must prepare yourself for a “bumpy ride” through the various levels of your own psyche. In fact, this can actually be the scariest part of healing Existential Grief: in order to recover, you must get to “know your true self.” This means that you’ll have to go deep into your own “stuff” – yes, down there – into your own pre-conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious minds. The bad news is that there’s no faking it possible here – you must come face to face with elements of your-self that perhaps you didn’t even realize existed.
You’ll be addressing change from the inside-out. Consider this: self-sabotage leads to bad outcomes!
Stage 5: Doing the work for however long it takes. A key and often overlooked aspect of recovering from Existential Grief are that no matter how much you may want to heal, the process cannot be rushed – unfortunately, there are no shortcuts in this arena.
If you are used to “cutting corners” to get things done in your life, that approach will fall flat here. You’ll be stopped cold or “stuck” on an emotional plateau, unless or until you come to this process with honesty and authenticity.
If you are already familiar with Gestalt and Jungian techniques, then you know that your body communicates via bodily felt-sense, dream symbols, and your intuitive faculties; not the language of words.
So, this means that you can’t “cheat” the process since your body is intelligent.
If you are interested in how these processes work, you can learn more about Gestalt, and Jungian approaches, bodily felt-sense, dream symbols, and intuition here.
Stage 6: Dealing with “Parts” Conflict. In this stage, you figure out “how” to have your inner world match or become congruent with your outer world. Why? Well, believe it or not, you have different aspects or “Parts” of your psyche or personality which may be in conflict with one another.
“Say what, Willis?” Yes, you have many “Parts” or sides of yourself that you may never have thought about or considered in any comprehensive way.
To move forward in the healing process for Existential Grief, you must integrate your Parts and resolve conflicts between Parts that are unconscious. You can learn more about how Parts Integration works here.
Stage 7: Recovering from emotional hurt and pain. In the recovery phase, your primary trauma memories and emotional hurt have been neutralized or dissolved. This allows you to begin moving on with your life…. which is the goal of recovery. From this vantage point, you can recall the memories of your Existential Grief experiences in a detached way – your memories are no longer fully associated, so you don’t feel any debilitating pain or hurt when you recall those experiences.
You are no longer stopped in your tracks when you recall your past or remember your trauma experiences. You no longer have uncontrollable urges to lash out at others or hurt yourself because of your feelings. You will have “come to terms” with your losses, your angst, your Existential Grief.
You will have said good-bye to your emotional pain. You will remember it, but you will no longer have a need or desire to continue an ongoing pathological relationship with your pain. It will no longer have a misplaced sense of honor on your mantle place; instead, it will be a dusty relic in the back of your closet with no power over you, should you happen to come across it. You’ll have a feeling sense of “knowingness” when you’re done.
Stage 8: Testing Phase. Although you may have felt the “shift” in your body as well as made significant changes in your habitual thought processes and emotional memory patterns, it’s still critical to periodically test your memory trail to make sure that you have excised all of your hurt and emotional pain surrounding Existential Grief.
Here, there’s a fine line between being confident and overly confident that your grief is all gone. Since you are working with your own unconscious – a terrain where you cannot be aware of every element or aspect – you have to be sure that your Existential Grief doesn’t re-ignite itself!
In fact, should you begin to feel that you are in any way merging (fully associated) with hurtful past traumatic memories, this may indeed be a clear sign that you have more work to do. Additionally, if you become defensive should someone ask you about your recovery from Existential Grief, that’s a sure sign that you’re not done yet – even though that’s the last thing you may want to hear!
To heal completely, you must be willing to go back to the drawing board and examine and excavate every aspect of your hurt and emotional pain. Yes, it’s true, recovering from Existential Grief is not for the faint of heart but the rewards of doing so are exhilarating since you’ll be able to live your life with meaning and clarity of purpose. That type of enhanced clarity is certainly a goal worth striving for, as anyone who has fully recovered from Existential Grief will tell you!
If you find yourself recalling certain events and there still appears to be some form of an emotional charge or negative valence that pulls in the direction of the full association, then that could indicate that you’re not done yet!
Stage 9: Healing: When you reach this final stage, you’ll be anxious to share your story of Existential Grief recovery with others. In part, this is how you’ll know that you’ve successfully transited from recovery to healing because sharing in this way represents transpersonal healing. Now you can tell your story in an objective fashion that maintains the passion yet is disconnected from your previous hurt, emotional pain and suffering.
Others may immediately be able to tell that you are healed and may congratulate or simply thank you for sharing your story of recovery. This is good news since our internal senses are primed to recognize the truth when we are in its presence. And that is the main reward of a healing recovery: a deep level of sharing your good news of hope with others who are currently suffering from Existential Grief.
Dealing with Racism and Sexism While Grieving
Finally, as people of color, it's critical to acknowledge the fact that we live in a society that has both institutional and individual mechanisms that can impact us negatively. When you are grieving the death of your spouse (or close loved one), the unfairness of racist and/or sexist acts can have debilitating effects upon your psyche unless you have strategies to counteract them.
Since the racist/sexist terrain is familiar territory to most of us, there's no need to elaborate on specifics here; or perform any complicated analysis. Ninety (90%) or more of your focus should be on solutions and workable strategies that work! Below are some tips to help you stay centered and on track with your life; no matter what!
While grieving, it's helpful to engage in self-care. Doing so increases your ability to withstand additional unexpected stressors. Since many of us have multiple caretaking responsibilities for children or family members in addition to work, adhering to the ole airline metaphor is wise: "Put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others." Doing so helps you stay out of states of overwhelm.
Find a stress management program that fits your personality. This will allow you to insert it easily into your daily routine. Whether you use yoga, exercise, meditation or prayer, the important part is to do this activity regularly and consistently. This helps boost your levels of resiliency so that you can respond to unexpected events energetically while grieving.
Remember that when a bully tries to intimidate you, it's often a sign that you are close to achieving some important goal or objective. In football, the closer you get to the end zone, the most the opposing team "digs in." It's a good idea to use offhand remarks, insults, etc. as a form of motivation.
Whenever a racist or sexist incident offends you, take out a photo of your goal and use that moment to give you extra energy because you now have motivational CLARITY! With clarity, you are automatically speeded up since the Universe tends to help those who know exactly what they want. So reframe that knuckleheaded behavior: turning lemons into lemonade.
Use the same power of music that your ancestors used to get through difficult periods successfully. You’ll find that if you break out in song or start humming your favorite tune, you’ll start to feel better right away. Importantly, when you hum, you spike your cyclic nitric oxide cycle. Doing so will automatically begin to relax your face, neck and shoulder muscles; you’ll find that your sinuses are clear too! Bottom line is that as you continue to hum, any stress or anxiety or grief you may have been carrying begins to subside and fall away. This allows you to keep moving forward strongly, despite having encountered a racist and/or sexist behavior, attitude, comment or attempt to sabotage you, e.g. a racist flattens your car tire at home or work.
For many African Americans, sincere prayer provides a continual source of support whereby one's faith in God allows you to carry on. So, when you are grieving the death of your spouse or other close loved one, and you encounter racist or sexist acts towards you during your day, remember that you can use prayer to give you the same fortified attitude so that your spirit lifts you higher and higher.
Many of our ancestors used prayer regularly to survive the horrors of enslavement. Compared to what they had to deal with day to day, our lives are a "piece of cake." Consider shifting into an attitude of gratitude as you continue to grieve. You can learn more about how to do that here.
When you are slammed with levels of insane racist and/or sexist behaviors, consider upping your game by moving on to greener pastures. Why? Because, once your mental "lightbulb" comes on, it may occur to you that you are dealing with people who are being unreasonable on purpose!
Thought of changing jobs or careers? Then go for it! Update that resume; interview with a recruiter. Thought of going back to school to upgrade your skills to get additional certifications? Order your college transcripts and apply!
Regardless of why or how an individual or situation is blatantly unfair, racist, sexist or unreasonable, the perspective of a college President opened my eyes as to why it can sometimes be a good strategy to move on to greener pastures. When I asked her "WHY" she was undermining our celebratory efforts at the college even though we were honoring her at a Black Tie event, she leaned back in her office chair and said: "I like stirring the pot!"
So, should you find yourself in an untenable situation on the job or with friends or family, best to cut them loose and shift into high gear; so that you stay on track with your life. Yes, it can be painful to say "goodbye" to folks you've known all your life, once you determine they are not in your corner.
Look, we only have so much time on this earthly plane. Once you've lost your spouse, you know for sure that there's "no time to waste! Best to surround yourself with individuals that are 100% for you, and to spend time in groups where you can fulfill your life's purpose.
Successfully healing the invisible pain Existential Grief causes is about much more than dealing with the death of your spouse. Doing so will allow you to move on with your life in a way that honors the loving relationship you had with your beloved as well as increasing your own self-compassion.
As most of us know, sometimes, we can be harder on ourselves than anyone else! In essence, healing Existential Grief is the ultimate form of self-love. As George Benson said in 1977 in his originally recorded version of The Greatest Love of All: "Learning to Love Yourself, is the Greatest Love of All."
Important Note: The advice offered in this article is educational in nature, and is not meant to serve as any form of therapy or medical advice. You should always consult your medical practitioner before beginning any new regimen.
Dr. Bob, The Stress Relief Doctor, is the co-host of the popular StressFreeNow podcast series. He is an Executive Stress Management Wellness Coach who has over 125 published articles on ways to reduce stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and grief; so that you can live long enough to play with your grandchildren. He is also the author of several books. You can view his Amazon author page here. Dr. Bob authored the first scholarly study showing a connection between stress reduction, grief recovery and nitric oxide spiking. See his research study Abstract here. To be coached by Dr. Bob, visit his coaching page here. To hire Dr. Bob for a keynote speech, training event or a workshop, you can contact him here.