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3 Things to Expect When Grieving Someone Who Is Still Alive

Grief changes when you're missing someone who hasn't died.

Key points

  • Grief is often referred to as an emotional reaction to the loss of something or someone important.
  • Grieving someone who is alive but not physically present introduces a host of unexpected changes.
  • You may be forced into unfamiliar roles, find it hard to stay hopeful, or feel lost without your support system.

Most people consider grieving to be their emotional reaction to a death, but there are several instances when you may grieve someone who is still alive. Chronic illness, acute medical crises, and even broken relationships can all create a cycle of grief that can be markedly different than the grief associated with death, while still similar in many ways.

Grief is often referred to as an emotional reaction to the loss of something or someone important. Though it is so much greater than that, grief does include loss on many levels. When grieving someone who is still alive, recognizing and understanding that loss can help you endure the devastating emotions accompanying it. Here's what you might expect when experiencing this type of grief.

1. Life somehow changes while staying exactly the same. It’s disconcerting and terrifying, at times, to come to terms with your brain’s awareness that life has irrevocably altered while outward circumstances may be in limbo.

Whether coping with someone hospitalized or suddenly removed from being physically present in your life in some other way, your emotions will be at war with your brain. Logically, you understand that person is no longer physically available to you. They cannot take care of their normal lives and are no longer present for those meaningful conversations. Even if you are able to talk to them (which is not possible in many medical cases), dialogue subtly changes: The focus becomes narrowed, typically zeroed in on the crisis at hand. Talks about the show you saw last night, the weather, or even your day-to-day life are unexpectedly non-existent.

Our brains are miraculous. You can experience two dissonant thoughts or feelings at the same time and be able to recognize them and process them with practice. When you’re grieving the way life has changed in these situations, your brain will logically explain the “whys,” but your emotions may be in shock. Identifying that someone integral to your life is physically present but emotionally (or cognitively) unavailable is straightforward. Understanding that truth and what it means in your life on an intimate level can be terrifying.

2. You are suddenly thrust into unfamiliar roles. When a loved one is in crisis and not functioning at full capacity, you will likely be forced to take on part of their responsibilities while simultaneously trying to navigate the changes at hand.

Maybe your spouse is in intensive care–your partner, your sounding board. Perhaps the ability to talk through problems is suddenly whisked out from under your feet, and you’re left spinning with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Maybe your parent is incapacitated in some way and can no longer take care of your needs, pushing you into the position on your own. Regardless of the circumstance, facing down abrupt role changes is frightening and can breed anxiety about the future.

Many family members of hospitalized loved ones encounter a new way of life that can stretch out for weeks, months, or even years, depending on the situation. Not only will they have to shoulder responsibilities that were once shared, but they may also find themselves being the person supported–financially, emotionally, and even physically in certain cases–without their familiar network to help make it through. Understandably, this creates unease and fear at a time when their world already feels tenuous.

3. You are constantly bombarded by reality when trying to hold onto hope. Particularly in cases of terminal illness or acute hospitalizations, family and loved ones will bear the brunt of learning about diagnoses and outcomes, and although it’s necessary, absorbing the medical details can be intimidating and scary.

Family members struggling to come to terms with a crisis that has robbed them of the familiar patterns with a loved one may find the medical world almost impossible to navigate. Medical professionals each fulfill their own particular function. The rush of information ebbs and flows, there will be times when you cannot get answers from anyone, and it’s rare to find a medical professional who can explain what’s happening in understandable terms when you’re in survival mode.

One of the most important jobs loved ones have in these situations is to hold onto hope–hope for recovery, hope for restoration, hope for peace. When you are consistently reminded of the problems (not making progress, treatments aren’t working, etc.), this can be daunting, particularly if your main support system is absent, thanks to the situation at hand.

Life Goes On

Recognizing some of these experiences gives merit to what you’ve been going through. It empowers you to cope with what’s at hand and understand the uniqueness of your situation.

Grief for someone still alive but not present in some important way can be devastating. It’s a special recipe of standing still while coming face-to-face with your worst fears—and waiting in a state of uncertainty to see how things work out. Loss is everywhere: the loss of physical touch, the loss of emotional support, the loss of quality time. The world revolves, but your life stops moving.

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