I think it’s safe to say that most of us have experienced some form of grief over the course of our lives. You may have mourned the loss of loved ones or pets, and fully know the pain that comes along with it. Your grief and the feelings surrounding it make sense because someone has died. But what about when you are grieving someone who is still alive? Specifically, grieving the loss of a relationship that was never able to reach its full potential. This form of grief, also known as ambiguous grief, is quite common and rarely talked about.
So what do we do? How do we handle this kind of grief? Is it okay to grieve the loss of someone who is still alive? How do we navigate these complex feelings?
1. Realize grief is not a linear process
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, “The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.”
There is a false belief that permeates our culture that when dealing with grief and loss, every day is better than the last, that every month is easier than its predecessor, that once you’re through the worst of it, the worst of it is gone. I have found this to be untrue. Grief is not linear. It could be any other shape – a circle, a spiral, a wave, a triangle even, but it is definitely not a straight line.
Grief, whether ambiguous or not, can hit us in unexpected ways — while planning your wedding and coming to terms with the fact that it’s best not to invite your mom, graduating from school and realizing you won’t have any family there to support or celebrate you, or hearing a song on the radio that reminds you of the relationship you once had. There are so many ways we are subconsciously reminded of our loss. Allow yourself to be where you are without fixating on what you think you “should” be feeling.
2. Allow feelings to come and go
Grief is a natural part of how we process any painful and saddening events. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it’s just not possible. If you’re experiencing difficult emotions, like shame, anger, sadness, or fear, remind yourself that it’s okay and normal to have such feelings. Not feeling okay is perfectly okay, even if society tells you otherwise. The more we attempt to hide or suppress our feelings, the stronger and more stuck they become. Feeling grief isn’t easy, but it is the only way through. Try to support yourself by journaling, crying, screaming into a pillow, punching a mattress, sitting with your feelings in silence, or reaching out to a trusted friend for support.
3. Find your tribe
In my experience with grief and loss, I have come across three types of people: those who’ve grieved and get it, those who haven’t grieved and know they don’t get it, and those who haven’t grieved and don’t know they don’t get it. I remember once talking to a friend about the grief surrounding my brother’s mental illness. Her response was something like, “Well, have you tried telling him how you feel? If he can’t meet your needs just cut him off and forget about it. It’s not worth your time and energy.” While some of what she said is valid, I felt dismissed and that there was no space to share my feelings. I learned that when I’m grief-stricken, its best to surround myself with people who can let me be in my feelings without trying to fix them or change them. Connecting with other people who “get it” is an invaluable resource. This can come in the form of a support group, a therapist, or friends who have experienced a similar loss.
4. Consider serving others
One common and natural response to grief is the inclination to isolate yourself from others. Sometimes it can help to shift your focus from your own sorrow to how you can make a difference in other people’s lives. This isn’t always possible, and that’s okay too. But if it is, consider volunteering to walk dogs at your local animal rescue, donating items to a homeless shelter, delivering a meal, offering to babysit for free, or paying it forward the next time you’re buying coffee and offering to pay for the person behind you, no strings attached. Helping others evokes gratitude and supports health and happiness.
5. Search for meaning
Painful experiences often end up being a fundamental part of our personal growth. This goes hand in hand with the overly used but true adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” Yes, even the hard stuff. Especially the hard stuff. The key is that we have to be open to the pain and difficulty, to be truly open to what it is we are supposed to gain from an experience.
Ask yourself, “What have I learned? How can it strengthen me? How can I take this experience and use it to support myself in the future? How can I use my experience to help others?” It could mean becoming a mentor, pursuing a profession that allows you to utilize your unique experience with grief, starting a blog/creating a platform to help others… the list goes on.
6. Practice acceptance
Here’s the thing about acceptance — It doesn’t mean that you are “fine” or “over” the loss you’ve endured. Instead, it means that your mind, body, and emotions are finally able to accept the events that have occurred, and you see it as something you can integrate into your everyday life, thoughts, and feelings.
The word “accept” is a verb. It’s an active process, one that must be practiced. It’s natural to vacillate back and forth between feelings of acceptance and feelings of resistance. Every time you practice acceptance toward something, you create and strengthen neural pathways in your brain, facilitating ease in the future.
7. Let go of the idea of closure
The idea of closure in our culture is one of tidy endings, a sense of completion. The reason we long for closure, of course, is because we would like to be rid of our pain. We want to shut out the sad, confused, desperate, angry feelings from our lives, putting all of it behind us so that we can feel joy again.
Closure may work well in the world of practical matters – with business deals and real estate transactions. But closure does not apply to the human heart, not in a pure sense. Closure simply does not exist. We have to live with all kinds of loss. Perhaps it is better to drop the idea of closure and think instead in terms of healing and growth.