We are all familiar with the common stressors in agriculture. It’s easy to point to price swings, government regulations, land competition, weather and disease when we talk about stress on the farm. However, there is another stressor, one I’ve taken to calling the “silent stressor” – grief.

Krekelberg emily
Extension Educator – Farm Safety and Health / University of Minnesota Extension

We are all familiar with grief, the feelings we experience when dealing with a loss. In a major loss like the death of a loved one, it can be easy to recognize that grief, and we are often given space by others to deal with our grief. However, that time of grace eventually runs out. Sometimes, the grief hasn’t.

Most people accept the well-known five stages of grief as a guideline for the healing process. The problem with this is: Those five stages don’t necessarily fit in all types of loss. These stages also assume that at some point, the grief will end. In some situations, grief can be disrupted for a period. In others, the grief may last for years. Grief can have a profound impact on our health, both mental and physical, so it’s crucial that we accept and confront it.

According to the Mayo Clinic, grief can cause a lack of focus, emotional numbness and immune suppression, among other physical and mental symptoms. People who experience long-term grief are more likely to isolate themselves socially and may develop depression. A common recommendation for dealing with grief is to find support. Talking about your grief and allowing yourself to express that grief freely to others you trust, like friends and family, can help lift some of that pain.

Seeking support for our grief can sometimes be difficult, especially if the grief we feel is not seen or recognized by others. A clear loss like death can make it easier to grieve more socially. Some losses, however, are not as clear. Ambiguous loss is when a loss is not clear, and thus may not be validated by others. The lack of clarity comes from an incongruence between the physical and psychological loss of something. In a clear loss, we physically and psychologically lose a person, place or thing. In ambiguous loss, something may be physically gone but maintains a psychological presence, or something is psychologically absent, but still physically present.  


A common example of ambiguous loss is when a loved one no longer communicates with their family. The loved one is physically absent from the family but psychologically still present in their parents’ and siblings’ minds. A farming example of this kind of physical loss is when a dairy farmer sells their cows but remains on the farm and involved in agricultural activities. The cows are physically gone, but the psychological identity as a dairy farmer remains. On the other side, something can be physically present but psychologically absent or unreachable. On the farm, this can happen to children who may see their relationships with their parents get neglected when the farm takes precedence. Although their parents are still physically home and they see them, the lack of social connection and engagement can leave a psychological absence that many children grieve.

In farming, there are many ambiguous losses, and they often go unrecognized. However, the grief we feel from that loss and its impacts can still be very real. Many people who experience ambiguous losses also experience disenfranchised grief, or a grief that is not understood or taken seriously. Knowing how important support is when coping with loss, not having your grief acknowledged can increase the symptoms. It’s also possible that because the grief is disenfranchised, the person experiencing it may not be able to recognize it as grief either.

Because grief can remain “hidden,” we may not realize our stress or poor health is being caused by it. People suffering ambiguous loss may oftentimes feel stuck or unable to make decisions to move forward. That stuck feeling may be tied to loss that we haven’t fully realized yet. If you or someone you know is experiencing that stuck feeling, consider what’s connected to that feeling. You may find what you are really experiencing is the grief of a loss. Because grief isn’t always acknowledged readily in ambiguous loss, it’s possible for the grief to last a long time, maybe even forever.

When our grief feels like it will never go away, another way we can support ourselves and others is by building our resilience. The pioneer of ambiguous loss theory, Dr. Pauline Boss, recommends various strategies for building resilience during loss. Some of these strategies include finding meaning, revising attachment and discovering hope. Finding meaning allows us to internalize meaning from the loss; we can find meaning through talking with others, adapting our rituals, and spirituality and forgiveness. Revising attachment is about changing the importance of what was lost, grieving it and celebrating what you still have. Developing and redeveloping relationships is a great way to revise attachment after a loss. Lastly, discovering hope lets us be comfortable with our ambiguity and create hope for the future. Hope can be found in laughter, spirituality and defining what we can control.

Grief is a big, challenging topic. Like most feelings, it is experienced differently by each person. Have patience with others as they grieve and have patience with yourself. If you are experiencing grief, whether it’s clear or ambiguous, find support and take the time to sit in your grief. Feeling our grief, rather than ignoring it, is the best way to cope with it. If others around you are grieving, find ways you can support them. Be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. In farming, we confront stress every day, and sometimes that stress is grief.