Grieving for someone who is alive

It’s a weird sentence saying that really. We generally associate grief with the loss of someone (or something) that is no longer here, so their physical presence being gone from all existence.

I have, however, learnt that grief is way more complex than I ever imagined and actually you can (as I have done) grieved for someone who is in fact alive. It is called unconventional or ambiguous grief.

I am by no means an expert in grief, I can only share my own experience but I have read up on this and apparently grief can sometimes be felt by our own expectations of a situation not being how we want it to be. For example, I used to desire a motherly-figure that I read about in story books. The person who saw me as their princess (well if the crown fits!? ;-)) and then as a best friend once I was older. I know this sounds a bit dreamy but hey, we grow up learning to dream, we read Disney books and watch films that tell us fairy tales are real and that if we are good people (i.e. Cinderella) then our prince or princess will come along. OK far too much Disney … but that is the gist of it.

I have cried a thousand tears over the years of what I wanted mum to be like. I am now her mum – from the continuous emotional support, practical advice and never ending guidance to the chaperoning to appointments and events.

If I was unwell, I’m not sure I would tell her. When I was in hospital a few years back, she came out to visit me and just constantly shouted that the place was not clean and everyone just stared at both of us, which made me feel even worse.

When I was around twenty, she was very unwell and told me over and over that she wanted to be with her (sadly deceased) parents. I understood it. She felt comfort with them. They looked after her. She was now an orphan with what she felt was no one to support her and help her navigate through a life she did not understand.

I feel this may have been the stage where I started to experience ambiguous grief.

My older brother, an exceptionally intelligent person (deemed gifted and extremely high on the MENSA scale) sat down with me to tell me to prepare for her taking her own life, that she would not continue living for much longer, especially if he stopped paying for her to stay in guest houses and hotels. She had a severe fear of gas at the time, meaning no property felt safe to her.

I sat there cupping a china mug with tea in shaking at the thought that I would really need to start thinking of how I would recover. I started to get a piercing pain in my heart, a sense of overwhelming sadness then anger, frustration and continuous confusion.

So I read up on this and I discovered that unconventional and ambiguous grief is REAL.

The Bereavement Academy defines unconventional grief as, “Grief caused by a loved one becoming someone that you no longer know or recognise.” Unconventional or ambiguous grief happens when someone you love experiences things such as mental illness, drug or substance addiction, family trauma, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or a brain injury.

Sometimes I look at the situation and start shedding tears at the pure thought that in over ten years, nothing has changed and only really become worse.

So, what helps?

  • The first step is acknowledging that this type of grief is certainly very real. Unconventional or ambiguous grief is not something that is often talked nor understood until you are faced with it. I had definitely not heard about it. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with close family members, friends or even a counsellor can be helpful and give you a safe space to share your feelings. There is a form of healing that often begins when we say things out loud.
  • Try and hold onto the memories you have with the person from the past. Even though things may have changed, these memories still remain really special 🙂
  • Reach out to find a support group. Many communities have Alcoholics-Anonymous, Dementia, Mental illness and Addiction support groups for family members. This could be helpful for you and for your children. Sharing stories with others going through the same or similar experiences can provide comfort and support.
  • Have a read on the Carer’s UK Forum and do a search on grief … there are lots of experiences expressed on there, which can help you not to feel as alone.

It is not easy at all, and I would never claim it is. Basically I now look at the relationship with my mum very differently and the only way that I could feel better was to come to the acceptance that the relationship is not what I had hoped.

It has helped me a lot to realise and understand that this type of grief exists and I really hope it helps you too.

x Rebecca x

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