Grief isn’t reserved just for actual deaths. Rather, grief can arise in any situation where there is a loss–or even just the potential for loss. You might be coming to terms with a loved one’s poor prognosis, or you may have lost someone due to a falling out or going “no-contact.” Either way, you’re left to grieve the loss of someone who is still alive.
In cases like this, your grief can be just as deep as mourning an actual death. So how can you get through this mourning period, especially when others struggle to understand the magnitude of your pain?
It’s common to grieve a loved one who is still alive
Examples of when you might grieve someone who is still alive:
- Breaking up
- Getting ghosted
- Choosing to go no-contact (NC) or becoming estranged
- Moving to a different city
- Longing for the person you once were
- Nearly losing a beloved one
- Feeling anticipatory grief due to a diagnosis
- Mourning someone’s mental illness, dementia, or other life-changing condition
- Falling out of contact due to alcohol or drug use
Grief separated from death
In addition to death, we also grieve when an important person becomes ill and changes, when we move cities and leave friends behind, or when our loved one changes abruptly because they are struggling with drug addiction and we no longer recognize them.
One of the great challenges when grieving a person who is still alive is that many of the people who make up our support system may not understand why we are grieving.
In the end, the person is still alive, right? There is no funeral, no condolences, no call to check in with us. This experience can be called “disenfranchised grief.” Under these circumstances, it’s easy to feel alone, misunderstood, and isolated.
But if the person was significant to you, even if they are still alive, it’s normal to grieve the loss you’re facing.
How can you grieve when you’re missing a loved one who is still alive?
We can grieve for a partner following a breakup, as well as for ourselves following a traumatic or life-changing event. We can miss a friend who moved away or a beloved teacher after we graduated.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Avoiding or suppressing what you’re going through is a successful way to feel worse in the long run.
Being mindful and trying to understand the emotions you’re experiencing is a big step in the grieving process. Dig deep into your own inner world: you’re equipped with plenty of emotions and each of them serves a purpose, gives information about how you are doing, and is equally valid and useful.
At times, we might think that there is a proper look or feel to grief. But even though grief is universal, there isn’t a right way of facing a loss or saying goodbye.
2. Embrace the deep change you’re facing
After losing contact with someone we love, we change deeply. For many people, this change means we cannot be the same person we were before. The person we were is no more. Someone once told me that a heart breaks so that light can enter it. Indeed, that is the change we are facing: the breaking, the deconstruction, the reformulation.
If our loved one is still with us, but confronting, for example, an adverse prognosis, they will certainly be changing–and we will, too. We are both transformed by what this diagnosis means for our future together. This may also mean that we have to reformulate the way we connect with one another.
3. Find others in the same situation
The old adage says: “You don’t know what it’s like in someone else’s shoes unless you’ve walked a mile in them”. Perhaps our close support system doesn’t know how to help us heal. Thankfully, nowadays there are many groups and easy access to communities who are going through something similar and can understand what we feel, people who can validate our feelings without false reassurance but with empathy.
4. Value the memories
Just because we’re in the present doesn’t mean we lose the past. Remembering those moments shared with a loved one shows us that despite the distance, the illness, or the change; we are connected to them, the same person we always knew and cared about.
There will always be places, foods, smells connected to the memory of the person we loved. Those will likely always belong to them and to the person we were when we were together with them. Use these as tools for grieving when feelings of loss hit hard.
5. Say a proper farewell to their presence in your life
For some people, performing a ritual helps integrate the past and the present with gratitude and a goodbye. If this feels like something you’d like to do, below are some ideas. You can follow the ritual step by step or you can read about it and use it as an inspiration to create very your own:
This kind of grief may invite toxic positivity. How can you respond to that?
Our biggest mistakes come from our greatest qualities, wrote the Marquis of Sade in the Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man. And that’s exactly where we can trace the root of toxic positivity.
“It must’ve been for the better” almost always feels hurtful to hear. Toxic positivity is a well intended response to distress, using forced reassurance. However, people with great intentions can harm us terribly (and often accidentally) by minimizing our pain.
When we hear phrases like “at least they are still alive”, we feel that our feelings are overreactions and that we should be grateful instead. We might even start to wonder whether or not we even have the right to feel grief.
The answer is, by all accounts, yes. We have the right to grieve a person who is alive and it’s a perfectly normal process. But toxic positivity makes it harder to cope. Then, how can you deal with toxic positivity?
Clarify your experience and needs
Some people just don’t know how to react when dealing with grief. That can be especially true when you’re grieving someone who is still alive.
Others may want to focus on the fact that you haven’t technically lost this person. You can use “Yes, but…” statements, redirecting the conversation to what you’re grappling with, away from the overly positive spin.
Being clear in regard to what you need can go a long way. You can say, for example, that you want to be heard, or that you’re looking for empathy rather than advice.
Acknowledge the toxic positivity
If you feel comfortable with the person who is being toxically positive, you can lightheartedly address the behavior. In the end, in this human experience, we are all learning, and some people truly don’t know the difference between healthy and toxic positivity.
Let your interlocutor know how much you value them in your support system and how important it is to embrace our suffering instead of avoiding it.
There is no right way to grieve someone who is still alive. We create the right way for ourselves, by attending to our thoughts and feelings without judgement.