Shadow Grief

New York, NY, USA - September 18, 2014: An unidentified young woman walks to work into the sunrise down a shaft of light on Liberty Street in the downtown Financial District of New York City only two blocks from Wall Street. The sun rising to the east casts deep shadows between the skyscrapers exaggerating the perspective and making a silhouette of the woman's figure. Tungsten white balance causes the photo's blue tone. In the background a row of Citibikes can be seen in a rack. The woman is carrying a bag and smoking a cigarette.

A mother, whose son died more than five years ago, was concerned something was wrong with her. She had ongoing feelings of sadness when much of her life was going well. “Everything is really good right now. My marriage survived our loss and is stronger than ever. We have had a new baby we adore. I am really grateful for my life. But I notice I don’t feel fully able to experience the joy I think I should be feeling.”

A term that describes the experience of many bereaved parents is shadow grief. Shadow grief is defined as “a dull ache in the background of one’s feelings that remains fairly constant and that, under certain circumstances and on certain occasions, comes bubbling to the surface, sometimes in the form of tears, sometimes not, but always accompanied by a feeling of sadness and a mild sense of anxiety.”1

Any loss may be accompanied by shadow grief. Traumatic death at any stage of the life cycle may create this experience. Adults who were children when their parent died often describe shadow grief. Many circumstances may bring sudden unexpected feelings of loss. A sight, a sound, a scent, or a holiday may trigger a sudden burst of sadness that emerges from the shadow of your loss.

It is easy to wonder what is wrong, when after years have passed there may still be this dull ache. Days may be filled with light yet that shadow may be just behind you. Nothing is wrong. Although we may have joy, our loved one is absent. We yearn for their presence even when the sun is shining.

1.    Ronald Knapp, Beyond Endurance, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2005), 43.

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Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O'Malley has recently published a book, "Getting Grief Right" about grief recovery.

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