Grief is hard under any circumstance.
But some circumstances add extra layers of challenge, as in the case of ambiguous grief.
Ambiguous grief involves the grieving of someone who is still alive. They are here in body but psychologically they are no longer present.
In some ways, this is harder than grief through death where there is a finality that in some ways helps our brains and our hearts to mourn, accept and move on. Those steps become more complicated in ambiguous grief as there is a new suspended state that becomes our reality.
In the case of a loved one being physically present but psychologically absent – there are several causes including dementia, traumatic brain injury, addiction, or serious mental illness. This is a painful and harsh reality as the person you love is emotionally and psychologically unavailable to you.
Great sorrow, anger and pain are experienced when your loved one changes into someone different before your eyes. Your mom who has always been attentive to you no longer recognizes you, or your partner who has always been kind and loving is now lying and stealing to support an addiction, or your intelligent and successful adult child who is now struggling with delusions and hallucinations.
What does not change is your love for the person, but you will deeply miss the person they used to be, the person who was available for you and to you. You will mourn the loss of who they were to you. There may be sadness, yearning, anger, guilt, and a cascade of other emotions that can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Another challenge is others may not recognize this as grief. When our grief is not acknowledged it can lead to loneliness and isolation when others fail to see our loss and pain.
What to Do When You Are Grieving Someone Who Is Still Alive
- Give a name to what you are experiencing – although not everyone may recognize this type of grief, it is important that YOU acknowledge it and give yourself permission to grieve your loss. Allow yourself to feel and express the pain of this loss and what it means to you. Talking with a friend, journaling, taking walks and allowing yourself to cry are some ways to acknowledge your pain.
- Remember the present does not override the past – although the pain of the present loss cannot be ignored, it is important to remember and honour the person they were to you. Be intentional about reflecting on those positive memories. Practicing gratitude for the precious memories and moments together is an important way to honour the significance of your bond and time together.
- Understand the illness is not the person – this can be challenging when you long for your loved one to be their former version of themselves. Whether it is addiction, dementia, a brain injury, or mental illness, reminding yourself of the illness grounds you in the reality that there is a process at play that is beyond your loved one’s control. If they could choose to be healthy and emotionally present, they would.
- Accept a new type of relationship – the relationship can no longer look and feel like it did previously. This is the heavy work of grief, coming to a place of acceptance. It is the death of your loved one’s former self in their healthy state and coming to terms with this new version. You don’t have to think this new version is great or amazing but accepting the reality of this new version will increase your coping.
- Connect with others who can relate – if your close friends or family are unable to understand your grief, seek connection with other people who have a shared experience with you. The opportunity for online support groups makes it easier than ever before to connect with others who understand exactly what you are going through.
- Seek therapy – meeting with a therapist who is trained in working with loss and grief can provide a safe haven of support. You will be assisted through your grief process in a way that facilitates your healing and growth. Many clients share that they could not have gotten through their grief process without the compassionate guidance of their therapist.
Ambiguous loss is different from loss and grief resulting from a death. Closure is not possible in the same way and your grief cannot be fully resolved as your loved one is alive, albeit in a different form. The ambiguity and mixed feelings created are common, expected and typically require support.