Shadowloss: loss in life

By Alyssa Warmland

Shadowloss is a term developed by Cole Imperi, a thanatologist and the founder of The American School of Thanatology. It describes the types of loss we feel in life, rather than the loss of life. Shadowlosses are things like divorce or the end of a long-term relationship, infertility, a medical diagnosis, losing a job, or the loss of some other relationship or thing. It’s a loss that impacts the life of an individual, as well as their social network in their life.

Sometimes, the loss of a being coexists with shadowloss. For example, when a loved one dies, families are often tasked with sorting through the person (or animal)’s belongings. When my dog died, I remember packing her bowls, her toys, her leash, and her collars away in a box I made space for in my crowded apartment because I couldn’t stand the loss of throwing them out. I remember holding her favourite toys and feeling deeply in grief. The “big loss” was my beloved dog, but the shadowloss was when I got rid of some of her belongings and how hard that piece was. It felt like a tug in the pit of my stomach when I turned towards the wall where her water dish used to sit, only to see an empty bit of wall.

Another example of shadowloss in my life was when I was fired from a job at a women’s shelter. I’d thought, all through my undergrad, that I would work in one. I worked hard to get my gender studies degree and to volunteer with feminist organizations that targeted violence against women. And, after applying four or five times, I finally got the job. I loved it, although the rest of the staff was far more conservative than I am and I sensed that I was not a great fit, in spite of my knowledge and my passion for the work. I was fired, just before the end of my probation, and refused an explanation as to exactly why. I was devastated. Not only was I losing a job, I felt as though I was losing a dream and a sense of self. Years, and a whole career, later, I still experience huge waves of grief related to that loss.

What we know about types of loss is that we experience grief related to them in very similar ways. Waves of sadness, anger, and the sense that something/someone is missing are a few things that can come up with “big loss” and with shadowloss. As with any type of grief, it’s not particularly useful to rank and compare types of loss or experiences of grief. But having language to describe the experience of grief associated with the loss of a thing or part of someone/their life can be useful. This allows us to acknowledge those losses as ones where we leave ourselves some space to grieve. It can also be another opportunity to connect in this life where there are shared human experiences like the complex plurality that is grief.

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