We mourn the passing of a legend and for many a hero. Much has been written in the past few days about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) and how she was a force for change, an advocate for women, a crusader for LGBTQ+, the disabled and many more.
Mother’s Day is a celebration of mothers and motherhood. I recognize that Mother’s Day can bring mixed emotions to both children and mothers impacted by social distancing and other challenging circumstances related to trauma, grief and loss.
Grieving someone alive is not a conventional form of grief that is often talked about, but is a real issue that is faced by the living. Death is often viewed as the base requirement for grief but mourning the deceased is only one facet of death. If you have never experienced this, you likely do not understand what we’re talking about. How can you grieve for someone that you haven’t lost? If you have experience this sort of grief, you probably are cheering inside your head that someone has finally put to words what you’re feeling.
Grieving for someone alive, is not the same as anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is the type of grief that comes about when you know that you will soon be experiencing a loss, such as when a loved one is dying or in the hospital. If you are experiencing anticipatory grief or looking for resources on it, please visit the following link: http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/anticipatory-grief/.
WHY UNCONVENTIONAL GRIEF HAPPENS
If you’re not familiar with this form of grief, you may be unsure how this is possible or what often triggers this form of grief in people. Often, this form of grief is caused by a loved one becoming someone that you no longer know or recognize.
COMMON CAUSES OF UNCONVENTIONAL GRIEF
• Mental Illness
• Drug or Substance Addiction
• Dementia or Alzheimer’s
• Brain Injury
• Family Trauma
The unfortunate truth of grieving someone alive is that they are still there as the person you once knew but psychologically are a different person than they were before. Also, many of these factors are outside of the control of the person experiencing them or the person who is watching their loved one suffer. It can be hard for either party to recognize because the person does not always look like they are sick.
Don’t look at these causes and think that they mean that you love this person any less though. This form of grief, just like grieving someone who is deceased, does not change the level of attachment to the person. Simply, this person is no longer acting how they were before and have had a dramatic shift in personality. If your brother is suffering from a drug addiction, his behavior may become erratic and he might start stealing from yourself or other family members. Some will grieve the life that he is not living as he focuses living for his addiction. If someone is dealing with a mental illness, they may now be dealing with depression so badly that they are unable to go on living their life or they may be experiencing delusions or hallucinations.
A person will experience many emotions while grieving someone alive. These emotions may be more powerful and more confusing than the grieving process for someone who has recently passed. Anger is a prominent emotion that shows up. The grieving individual could feel anger towards their loved one for the issues they are dealing with and have a hard time understanding that they may not be able to change, such as in the case of mental illness. While experiencing anger, you may feel guilty as well that you are experiencing anger or guilty that you cannot control or change the situation.
Unlike when someone dies, you are unlikely to experience positive emotions while grieving someone alive. When someone passes, you are surrounded by the comfort of their loved ones and are often able to look at the joy of their life. This rarely happens with unconventional or ambiguous grief. Just like when someone dies, you are likely to be overcome with sadness. However, the reminder of your sadness is constant every time you think of this person or hear about them.
How to Grieve Someone Alive
• Let yourself grieve. Don’t attempt to hide or suppress your grief for this situation just because society or your loved ones don’t understand or acknowledge what you’re going through. Be open to sharing how your feeling to close family and friends and don’t push yourself to be someone you’re not at this time.
• Find other people in the same situation. Connecting with other people who are experiencing the same kind of personal loss as you is an invaluable resource. This can come in the form of a support group or finding an individual to speak with. Having someone understand what it is like to be grieving someone alive will help to put your situation in perspective and help you to gain insight on the validity of your feelings.
• Don’t forget your memories or the past. When you are experiencing ambiguous or unconventional grief, it is easy to forget why and how you previously loved someone in the midst of their hurtful behavior. Remind yourself of the good times that you had and why you originally loved them. It is okay to cherish old moments and mourn that they are gone. Remember that that person is still here though, just not at the moment.
• Open yourself up to change. One of the hardest parts of grieving someone alive is that you are forced to accept a changed relationship that you do not want. It may be difficult for you to look on a loved one in a different life, but you may be able to experience a rewarding relationship with them in new ways than before. Focusing on finding joy in your new relationship will help keep your mental state positive rather than gloomy.
• Always remember that the illness is not the person. For many people, this is the hardest mental hurdle to overcome while grieving someone alive. Stop yourself from thinking of your loved one as the disease they’re dealing with, whether it be addiction, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You will still likely feel angry towards the person but understanding what they’re actually dealing with can help you process some of those feeling.
Unconventional Grief, Ambiguous Grief, or grieving someone alive are all very real and pertinent forms of grief that need to be treated, understood and addressed. Become a member of The American Academy of Bereavement today to find more resources on grief.
Join CARE Counseling and My Talk’s Mom Show as we work to connect Minneapolis Mom’s to Mental Health and Counseling Resources. Special guests this week on The Mom Show includes staff members Shannon Henry and Heidi Bausch as they discuss the concepts of grief and loss.
Trigger Warning: Sucide
“‘Oh, there he goes again, in one of his moods. Moody Finch. Angry Finch. Unpredictable Finch. Crazy Finch.’ But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of bad parents and an even worse chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person.”
This passage is from the insightful young adult novel All the Bright Places, which brings together two teenagers experiencing the hardships of mental illness, suicidal thinking and grief. This is author Jennifer Niven’s first young adult novel; in it, she uses her personal experience as a survivor of suicide to spread awareness about what it’s like to live with mental illness.
Using relatable characters, she paints a beautiful story of love and loss. Niven’s main character Theodore Finch asks himself, “Is today a good day to die?”—introducing suicide, the main theme of the book, in the very first line—as he stands on the ledge of a bell tower at his high school. Niven then introduces Violet Markey, who also finds herself on top of the looming bell tower, though she doesn’t fully understand how she got there. And so begins Finch and Violet’s ominous love story.
Throughout the book, Niven emphasizes how someone going through mental health challenges can believe that suicide is a reasonable solution to their condition. Finch regularly considers all the different ways he could end his life, logging them with a list of pros and cons. Finch’s ideations are revealed mainly to the reader, but occasionally to other characters.
Readers can see that what Finch is going through is bipolar disorder even though “depression” and “mania” are never mentioned, and he doesn’t receive his diagnosis until well into the book. Instead, Niven uses terms like “Awake,” “Long Drop” and “Asleep” to describe the cycles of his mood. As his “Long Drop” nears closer, tension builds around Finch’s frame of mind. But while he considers ending his life, he simultaneously teaches the grief-stricken Violet how to live hers.
Violet never receives any diagnosis throughout the book, but it is implied that she may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after being in a car accident that killed her older sister. She stops trying in almost every aspect of her life and isolates herself from people she used to spend time with. She refuses to be in a moving car, has consistent nightmares and can’t get herself to write—a once-favorite activity she used to share with her sister.
Finch encourages Violet to ride in a car again, to go to new places and write again. Without Finch, Violet may have taken years to fully live her life again. On the other hand, Finch’s condition only worsens with time, even as his love for Violet helps him experience “all the colors in full brightness.”
These two teenagers have more to grapple with than typical drama and nightly homework that plague everyone during the high school years. They have symptoms, stigma and the question of why life is worth living to contend with and Niven manages to showcase just how difficult mental illness is, especially during adolescence when mental health conditions often onset. The book concludes in a way that makes readers understand that when you live with mental illness, sometimes you have happy endings and sometimes you don’t.
Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.
I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.
I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.
Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.
- My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.
- The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.
- Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.
- I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.
- I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.
- Don’t bitch about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.
- It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?
- Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.
- Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.
- When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.
Here I sit eight and ten years later and there are still times that I reach for the phone when something exciting happens. Then it hits me; shit, I can’t call them.
Their deaths have forever changed me and how I look at the world. In an odd way it has made me a better parent. I am always acutely aware of what memories can mean to my son and how I will impact his life while I am on this earth. He deserves to know how much he is loved and when I am gone, what I teach and instill in him now, will be my legacy.