Some of our most cutting losses can go unrecognized by family and friends, even ourselves.
- The Loss Of A Person We Once Knew
Sometimes the people we love change in significant ways. They’re still in our life—but not in the way you remember or once knew them. Illness often changes people, especially mental illness or dementia. In dementia, a person still is with us, but is not like the person we previously knew. The ties that bind us to one another, the shared memories and even the personality are no longer accessible. Sometimes the changes can be startling. The mother of one of my friends grew up in the segregated South. Yet her daughter was proud that her mom had been active in the civil rights movement, even though her mom lost friends and alienated family. Her mother would proudly tell the story of how, as an adolescent girl, she shamed her all-white church into integrating services. Yet, as her mom lapsed into dementia, she began using racial epithets. Her mother’s language not only shocked her daughter but also called into question her mom’s true beliefs. Was her mother really the progressive person she believed her to be?
I gradually lost the mother who threw back her head and laughed when I pulled out my tarot cards. My visits were now quiet and solemn and sometimes when I sat and quietly cried, I questioned myself on who I was actually crying for – my mom or me?
Other illnesses can create a similar sense of loss. A traumatic brain injury generally affects all levels of mental function. We may grieve people as they sink into mental illness, alcoholism or drug use. Positive changes can also engender grief, when a person becomes different from the individual we knew and loved. For me, it was the religious conversion of a best friend, Kimberly. I was initially delighted that my friend found faith, even if it was different and more intense than my own. But soon she began making fun of the politician I worked for, picking apart my projects that I so greatly believed in.
I was so proud of my mother when she became active with Alcoholics Anonymous after a long battle that almost tore our family apart. But things became different. She no longer wanted to sit in a club and hear my husband’s band. Our family New Year’s Eve parties were spent in the church basement, with other members of AA families. I was still so proud of her and supportive of her efforts at sobriety, even as I grieved aspects of my former life.
2. The Loss Of A Person We Haven’t Yet Lost
Anticipatory grief refers to the grief felt about someone with a life-limiting illness; friends, family and caregivers often experience it in anticipation of an eventual death. These losses are significant. The loss of health—even the prediction of loss—contained in a diagnosis can be a source of grief not just for the person diagnosed, but also for his loved ones. Anyone who sits long-term by the bed of a loved one is already grieving.
We lose our assumptive world. All our plans, thoughts, our sense of the future— even our sense of safety and security—are now challenged. The future we know is not the one we once imagined. For Craig, his wife’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer dashed their retirement dreams of travel and possibly relocating to Tuscany. As any illness progresses, we continue to experience additional losses and grieve each one.
3. The Loss Of The Person We Used to Be
On the 2nd day of school, I heard my young neighbor complain to his mother that he went to kindergarten yesterday! His mom patiently explained that he would now go five days a week to kindergarten—instead of his two-day-a-week preschool. The boy looked at her with disappointment, tears in his eyes. This changes everything! he complained.
It does. Everything changes as you age. Some changes you take in stride but others affect you deeply. Consider the birth of a child. You may have anticipated this event for years and be overjoyed. But you also know life will be different now; over the next couple of decades, your own freedom will be limited—and for a shorter period, so will your sleep.
Each transition in our lives—no matter how positive—has an undercurrent. The thrill of passing your driving test held so much meaning, a mark both of accomplishment and maturity that promised new freedom and adventure. Now, imagine the pain and grief when, through age or disability, you are forced to surrender that license and all it has meant.
Remember: Grief is not always about death, but it is always about attachment and separation. Often, people endure pervasive and intense distress without having faced the death of a loved one at all. Further, in these cases of unrecognized losses, our grief is often not recognized by others, either. But you can grieve the loss of anything, anywhere or anyone to whom you had become attached—no list could name all the possibilities. To deal with the sorrow, you may need to find confidants, counselors and support groups that can assist you. Above all, you need to have your grief acknowledged. Allowing yourself to understand the validity of your emotions is the only way to begin