Grieving The Living: When your “lost” loved one is still alive

Grieving the loss of someone who is still alive can be painful, confusing and lonely.
Grieving the loss of someone who is still alive can be painful, confusing and lonely.

Grief is a big word. It’s a big word that often comes attached with it visions of caskets, funeral homes and sympathy cards. But grief isn’t just about death. As I said in a former blog, you might experience grief due to any variety of loss – the loss of a career, marriage or yes, a loved one. When my husband, Bill, completed suicide, I experienced grief like I’d never known before. His death is what propelled my life into a new trajectory – one in which I could help those also suffering.

What I didn’t count on after Bill’s death was that I would also experience grief for his family. Of course, they didn’t die with him. They are alive and well (as far as I know), but have not spoken to me for some time. Understandably, their own grief over the death of their son manifested itself in different ways than my own, and they are no longer part of my life.

In the years since Bill’s death, I’ve tried repeatedly to contact his parents. About a year ago, their home phone was disconnected. I didn’t have another way to contact them. A few months ago, when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, I had no way to know whether they had been affected. Periodically, I browse obituaries and have even called assisted living facilities to see if I can get an update on their lives.

Why do I continue to put myself through this? That’s the thing; grieving the living is a confusing and difficult thing. Perhaps I’m looking for validation that they don’t blame me for their son’s death. Maybe I just can’t let go of the last living link to my husband. Maybe I’ll never know what I’m searching for, but it’s hard to move forward knowing that they’re living their own lives somewhere out there.

Grieving the living

If you’ve read my book “What I Wish I’d Known: Finding Your Way Through the Tunnel of Grief,” you already know that my story is somewhat unique. What’s not unique is the grief I experienced both for my husband who died and his family, whom I also lost. This experience has allowed me to relate to those also grieving living people, from estranged children to former spouses to parents or other loved ones who are “gone,” physically or emotionally. Grieving the living can be a lonely, isolating process, because often, the support system you receive when a loved one dies isn’t there; people don’t understand or relate to your loss the way they would if a funeral was involved. Depending on the cause of your grief, your friends or family might even say something like, “you’re better off without him/her.” Those comments might be aimed to make you feel better, but they don’t help you grieve in a healthy way.

What causes the grief?

In my story, my in-laws essentially cut ties with me, so physically and emotionally, they were (and are) out of my life. This loss spurred a grief response in me that I still feel today. Like grieving the death of a loved one, the grief comes in waves. Trigger points, like the time of year, a song, a smell or an activity, can trigger memories that make the grief almost unbearable at times.

But it’s also possibly to grieve someone who is physically present. There are several reasons why a loved one might feel “gone,” even when he or she is alive, well and in contact with you. Mental illness, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction can dramatically alter personalities, leading you to feel like you’ve lost the person you once knew. For example, a loved one who is now addicted to drugs or alcohol may act entirely different from the person you love and remember. He or she might be erratic, depressed or even cruel. He or she might steal from you and your family – something the sibling you lovingly remember would never do.

How to Grieve the Living

Like grieving the dead, grieving the living isn’t a defined process. Grief manifests itself differently for everyone. If you’re suffering the loss of someone who is still alive, many of the healing tactics I’ve shared on this blog and in my book still apply.

Feel the grief

Grief is painful. But avoiding it or suppressing it will never help you to heal. While some may not understand your grief (it’s not as simple or relatable as grieving a death), it’s important for you to talk through it with a trusted loved one or a professional. Be honest about your feelings.

Cherish the memories

Sometimes, memories of happier times can elicit waves of grief that are difficult to get through. But remembering the person as he or she once was can help you see past the person he or she has become – whether voluntarily or involuntarily. This will help you realize that your loved one is still the person you remember; he or she is just suffering from something you may or may not fully understand.

Accept that the past is the past

In some cases, your loved one might “come back” to you. An addict can get help, estrangements can be mended and mental illness can sometimes be treated. However, it’s also important to accept the fact that your relationship – and your loved one – has changed. Be open to your “new normal.” Never give up hope, but also try to accept the fact that the situation is no longer what it once was.

For more information on grief and loss, visit TheGriefGirl.com.

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