What is “secondhand grief”?

“Secondhand grief” is a term for being affected by the experience of watching another person experience grief. As a friend, family member, partner, roommate, coworker, or medical provider experiencing secondhand grief, you may find yourself with many (unexpected) emotions of your own.

Secondhand grief can be difficult, so be careful not to ignore your feelings or downplay your experience. You may find that secondhand grief resurfaces the emotions of a past loss, making the experience all the more overwhelming. To help you navigate this difficult time with compassion for yourself and your grieving loved one, here are some tools and techniques to keep in mind.

  1. Seek support and resources
  2. If your guard is up, practice emotional agility
  3. Present moment awareness can help when you are overwhelmed

Seek support and resources

While we all face grief at some point in our lives, it can differ dramatically from person to person, and can take unexpected forms. Grief can even physically manifest in the body. As such, take time to notice your feelings, and seek personalized counseling from a professional therapist or a support group with others in similar situations (someone other than your grieving friend or loved one). For immediate help in a crisis, as well as for referrals to services for mental health or substance use, you may contact the SAMHSA hotline by calling 1-800-662-4357 (this help is free and confidential).

Secondhand grief can be difficult, so be careful not to ignore your feelings or downplay your experience.

While grief is a natural part of life, we aren’t born knowing the right way to handle difficult situations, nor is there one prescribed way to do so. In addition to finding support, you may choose to seek out grief resources online, in books, or from a trusted medical professional to learn about others’ experiences. These beloved, time-tested titles about grief may be a good starting place.

If your guard is up, practice emotional agility

If you are experiencing grief secondhand, you may be questioning if you are even allowed to feel so strongly about “someone else’s” grief. There may be pressure on you to remain tough so that you can support others who you believe are feeling worse or dealing with greater challenges than you. I call this putting on emotional armor, and it is a common ailment among medical providers, many of whom face emotionally taxing work made worse by packed schedules and burdensome administrative responsibilities. 

But, because feeling more attuned to others’ emotions as well as your own creates connection and helps you to mutually support one another, I encourage you to try removing your emotional armor. We can balance self-protection and emotional connection with a practice called emotional agility. This means allowing yourself to feel a range of emotions alongside a grieving patient, friend, or loved one. The goal is to allow yourself to feel emotions and then return to a balanced, more self-aware and empathetic state.

It can feel risky at first, but when emotions arise, simply notice them: what do you feel? Sit with that feeling. Observing and experiencing your own feelings can create greater connection with others as well as helping you understand what support and healing you may need.

Aim for present moment awareness when you are overwhelmed

Present moment awareness, or mindfulness, is a powerful tool during times of grief. Maybe you can barely think because of the emotions in and around you; or, perhaps you can’t stop thinking about all the things you need to do to help your loved one—or all the ways you are unable to help them feel better.

In these moments, the practice of present moment awareness is a simple, free way to start afresh. According to the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation, “Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment.” To help you get there, here is a mindfulness exercise adapted from Lion’s Roar:

  1. Silence your phone, and put away any screens or technology that may distract you.
  2. Sit down in a supportive chair, with your feet flat on the floor.
  3. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
  4. Each time you breathe in, note this as an “in-breath.”
  5. Each time you breathe out, note this as an “out-breath.”

You can practice this exercise for as long as you choose. Afterwards, carry that energy of “noticing” on to your next activities: are you sitting with a friend? Cooking a nourishing dinner to share? Sorting the mail? Approach each task with this mindful attention—this is present moment awareness.

About board certified neurosurgeon and author, Dr. Joseph Stern

Dr. Joseph Stern is a board certified neurosurgeon and the author of Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion. Dr. Stern’s book explores the impact of grief and loss on both doctors and patients, advocating for medical professionals to tap into their emotions when interacting with patients and their families. Join the conversation about more compassionate medical care by signing up for our newsletter or following Dr. Stern’s social media accounts.

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