Dealing With Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who Is Alive

When we think of grief, it’s usually associated with the death of a loved one. However, grief is complicated. It can find its way into our lives in several different ways. Any time we experience a significant life-altering change, we face grief on some level. Saying goodbye to some part of our former life can be hard. A loss is a loss. Our brains need time to absorb and process the shock of having to carry on with our lives in a new and uncertain way. Emotional loss can be just as overwhelming and challenging to deal with as death. One expression of this trauma is known as ambiguous grief.

What is Ambiguous Grief?

We experience ambiguous grief when we feel a loss for someone even though they’re still alive. It can also refer to the loss of anything significant in your life. Ambiguous grief doesn’t necessarily have the sensation of finality that comes with physical death. With an actual death, there is a clear realization that the person is gone, even though it may take some time to process. Ambiguous grief can feel more like a state of purgatory or limbo. While your life is irrevocably changed, a resolution is still missing without a final goodbye. Thus, ambiguous grief can be more challenging because it’s seemingly ongoing with no end in sight.

Why Do We Grieve Someone Who is Still Alive?

There are endless scenarios when it comes to ambiguous grief. Here are a few examples:

Mental Impairment

When a loved one suffers from a mental impairment, it can feel like you're experiencing a very slow and painful loss. One that seems to be all but concluded, leaving you feeling powerless and emotionally drained. A loved one with dementia is still the person you love; however, they aren’t the same person you knew. While their humanity remains, their ability to recall people fades. As we slowly disappear from our loved one’s memory, it can feel like a double death. They are still alive; however, the special relationship you shared is non-existent.

Similarly, those loved ones with drug addictions become unrecognizable. Their brains become completely re-wired, changing their personalities forever. Loved ones suffering from mental illness or traumatic brain injuries, through no fault of their own, may say or do hurtful things. Feelings of ambiguous grief are further amplified for those functioning as primary caregivers for loved ones experiencing cognitive impairments.

Rift in Relationship

Experiencing a falling out with a family member can feel like a loss. As time passes and the rift remains unresolved, ambiguous grief can intensify. After all, the relationship you once had is no more. The situation becomes more complex and challenging if there is a flat-out refusal to communicate with any involved parties.

Break Up

When a breakup or divorce ends a relationship, it can leave individuals reeling. Many questions may be left unanswered if unexpected: Why did this happen? What did I do? How can I live without them? The joy, exhilaration, and companionship the relationship brought to your life is gone forever. It can be extremely difficult to accept such a 180 in your life. Although there is always a hint of reconciliation because they are still alive, the trajectory of events may make that impossible for many reasons.

How to Cope with Ambiguous Grief

When encountering grief of any kind, it’s important to face and acknowledge it. While ambiguous grief presents its unique challenges, there are several things you can do to help release what has been lost and foster hope for a better tomorrow. Here are six tips to support your ambiguous grief experience.

Lean into Your Grief

First and foremost, if you’re grieving someone still alive, it’s ok to honor your feelings. Even though no one has died, your grief response is very real. There is no need to feel shame or embarrassment regarding your unique grief response. Allow yourself to grieve your loss and accept any feelings that may surface. We can only find a way through the pain by looking grief in the eye.

The Love Is Real

Even though your experience with your loved one vastly differs from the familiar love and joy you shared in the past, the love is real and always has been. Nothing in the present will change that. While their behavior or words may be difficult to bear in the present, the good times of the past are written in history. You’ll always have your cherished memories. Nothing in the present will take that away from you.

Separate the Person from the Illness

The illness is not your loved one. As bad as you want someone to be the same person you knew, it isn’t in your loved one’s control. If they treat you differently from what you’re used to, just remember it isn’t personal. Whether it’s dementia, mental illness, brain trauma, or even addiction, your loved one’s mind is different. Understanding their specific affliction can help you clearly separate your loved one from their struggles and possibly assuage any negative feelings you may have.

Find New Meaning

Out of the love you bear for your loved one, you can still honor their changed behavior by showing up with love, kindness, and acceptance. Why you’ve been tasked with this difficult challenge is irrelevant. It’s here in front of you, and you can choose how to respond to it. Leaning into love and discovering new meanings in your altered relationship can bring a welcomed balm to your suffering.

Clean Up Your Side of the Street

When a major rift has occurred, you may feel powerless to bring about change. If the person is still alive, you can remedy the rift by taking responsibility for anything on your side. Even if you feel you’ve done nothing wrong, letting your loved one hear that you wish for peace between you both may be just the olive branch needed to open that door. Of course, each situation is unique and complex, and this may not be appropriate or possible in some cases.

Be Gentle with Yourself

Ambiguous grief can be overwhelming and exhausting. It’s important to be easy on yourself and take it one step at a time. Know that your feelings of loss are perfectly normal and valid. While no magic pill can make it disappear, facing your ambiguous grief can bring comfort and solace. Honor your feelings, take care of yourself, and keep hope alive!

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