June 18, 2024

I’ve reached the age when the deaths of dear ones are increasingly common events. I remember that my Nana always turned to the obituaries first when she read her New York Times. She would joke that as long as she didn’t appear in print as one of the deceased, it was bound to be a good day. That chipper remark aside, I think Nana scanned the ages and causes of death, for reassurance that she herself most likely still had some time left. We have a tendency to rank death as quite the worst thing that can ever happen. 

But there are many other kinds of losses. I recently read that these non-fatal, but still very sad, events are called “shadowlosses.” Examples could include being fired from a job, a bitter divorce, the end of a friendship, a cancer diagnosis, moving from a long-time home. These occurrences are usually ranked as much less important than death, but I think some of them are almost as painful. And what adds to the pain is the way they are so often brushed off with “well, it could be worse.” Perhaps, but the empty spaces in our lives that used to be filled with good health, a rewarding career, a beloved neighborhood, can nevertheless cause tremendous sorrow.

I mourn the demise of certain relationships. Even decades later, the thoughts of these lost friendships continue to sting—especially when I dwell on what I did to contribute to the final rifts. I totally understand the folks who mourn a major move from a house they’d loved, those who feel really adrift after retirement, those who greatly regret the dissolution of a marriage.

We tend to divide our lives into “before” and “after” certain pivotal events.  I agree with John Greenleaf Whittier that “what might have been” are the saddest words. For me personally, while the deaths of family members and close friends have been wrenching, my “before” and “after” event is the year before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That is my biggest shadowloss. I became a nasty, out-of-control stranger to myself. I caused many people pain. I completely lost what I’d always understood to be my personality. That horrible year changed me then, and I remain a changed person. Luckily, I got the help I needed, and I have a good life now. But I’ll never go back to being the Elise of my first 49 years—and I’ll always wonder what might have been, if I never had a mental illness.

I’m glad that we’re starting to talk about shadowlosses. I’m hopeful that we’ll stop minimizing other people’s sadness, stop encouraging them to “just cheer up.” Time will pass. They/we will, someday, feel better. But in the meantime, it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to feel genuine sadness, and not have to justify it on some sliding scale. Life is tough. Period. Recognizing the validity of these different losses is a great gift we can give to others—and to ourselves.


    I am an author (of five books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a retired director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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