Grieving Someone Who’s Still Alive: How It Works

Updated

The experience of grief for a missing loved one is a profoundly complex one for individuals faced with this type of loss. Dealing with normal grief is challenging enough, but the unique issues that arise over losing a relationship with someone who’s still living can be even more painful to endure.

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Sometimes, relationships with people we know and love dissolve for different reasons. Although varied, some more common reasons include traumatic events, illnesses, or severe injury that render those we love incapacitated or unrecognizable. The person we once knew no longer exists. Although they’re still alive, they’re no longer psychologically present. The resulting grief can feel very agonizing and real.

Can You Grieve Someone Who’s Still Alive?

One of the hardest things for anyone to endure is to mourn the loss of a loved one who’s still living. Grieving someone who is still alive is more common than you might think. Whether your loved one has changed, no longer wants to have a relationship with you, had become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffered through a life-changing illness, learning to let go of them or who they once were is challenging at best.

The grief process mirrors when someone close to you dies, but sometimes with the added intensity of not having any closure, such as when your loved one has gone missing or suddenly disappears. This type of grief is real and pervasive and often can feel much more intense than what you might experience when someone close to you dies.

What’s It Called When You Grieve Someone Who’s Still Alive?

The grief you experience when mourning the loss of someone who’s still alive stems from a loss that has no closure or resolution. Loss like this is known as ambiguous loss. There are two types of losses generally associated with ambiguous loss. They are physical and psychological. 

Physical ambiguous losses include:

  • The disappearance of a loved one
  • Having a loved one in prison
  • Being married to a military spouse deployed in a foreign country
  • Suffering a miscarriage

This type of loss creates confusion and leaves you searching for answers and explanations. When none are forthcoming, these feelings contribute to and may lead to complicated, unresolved grief. 

Alternatively, instances where individuals grieve psychological losses also often include parents who’ve lost their children to drug addiction, have children with physical or cognitive challenges, or have children who are estranged.

The label of ambiguity helps families and individuals cope with their loss when there’s no other explanation for the disappearance or breakdown of the relationship. A psychological loss can also involve ending a relationship with someone you love due to a breakup or divorce. 

Common Examples of Grieving Someone Who’s Still Alive

Ambiguous loss occurs in many types of everyday situations. Although we may not recognize them as such when going through particular hardships, the following examples are common ways in which it’s possible to grieve someone who’s still living. 

Children removed from the home

When children are suddenly separated from their families by Child Protective Services or when a parent loses custody of their children in a divorce, it’s common for parents to feel an intense loss following the event. Whenever there’s such a traumatic separation, the parent and child both experience loss. 

Another common ambiguous loss example occurs when a foster parent must give up custody of the child under their care for reunification with the child’s biological family. Although the foster parent enters the relationship knowing that their time with the child is likely limited, they can still experience a profound and debilitating form of caregiver grief.

Dementia or incapacity

Instances of grieving someone who’s still alive involving adult individuals can include being married to someone with dementia. The healthy spouse experiences the psychological loss of the marriage relationship with their spouse even though they’re still alive. The natural cognitive decline for someone with dementia may take years to manifest wholly. In the interim, the healthy spouse suffers from ambiguous loss and may experience anticipatory grief knowing that their spouse’s health is in decline.

Drug addiction

Adult children addicted to drugs or alcohol often suffer from the breakdown of family relationships. Their addiction may create many rifts between them and their loved ones, leaving the family with few options on how to handle this situation. The ambiguity of this loss lies in that the addicted child is no longer recognizable as who they used to be, leading to abandonment and estrangement from their family.

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How to Cope With Grieving Someone Who’s Still Alive

Learning to cope with ambiguous loss begins with recognizing the changes brought on by the loss. Grieving individuals must learn to face the challenges in their situations while letting go of what they lost without losing hope for a resolution. Although ambiguous loss creates a long-lasting grief response, the ultimate goal of dealing with ambiguous loss is finding meaning despite the lack of answers. The following are a few ways of coping with this type of grief. 

1. Allow yourself to grieve

Healthy grieving allows you to free up pent-up energy and natural grief reactions. When you permit yourself to grieve freely, you unleash the power of your emotions to heal you. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling sad, confused, and even angry that there’s no finality to your loss. The ambiguity of your loss is responsible for the deeper feelings of loss and lack of closure. 

2. Gain control over the situation

The situation may never change, but your outlook and what you're hoping will happen strongly influence how you react to this type of loss. It helps when you talk about your feelings with others who love and support you.

The more you talk about what you're experiencing, the easier it becomes to work through your feelings of loss and regret. The narrative you build around your loss makes it more concrete, giving you more control over not only what's happened but how you're surviving through this challenge.

3. Grow in your spirituality

When you turn to your faith and spirituality, it helps you maintain hope about the future. Using the tragedy to grow spiritually adds to your loved one's legacy while helping you become stronger and better able to cope with your loss. Spiritual growth can be fulfilling in itself, but when you attach it to finding meaning in your loss, your spirituality may lead you to a renewed sense of purpose and will to live. 

Ways in which you can honor your loved one as you reconnect to your higher self include asking for prayers for your loved one's safe return or asking God or your higher power to watch over them and keep them safe. 

4. Look for meaning in your loss 

Finding meaning while maintaining hope when your grief remains unresolved can be challenging. But the real challenge is making meaning out of the experience and not necessarily the loss itself. Some ways that you can find purpose include doing a deed for someone, connecting or reconnecting to someone in your life, and being active as you search for answers.

Some people find it helpful to stay active and connect with others to survive their loss and grow as a result of it. Some examples of how to do this are to become politically active or fight for a social cause. The meaning that you give to your experience is what forms your grief reactions. 

5. Be kind to yourself

Finding ways of being gentle and compassionate with yourself in the face of trauma isn’t always easy to do. When a person faces the ambiguity of an unresolved loss, it’s easy to find blame in their actions or inactions leading up to the loss. Guilt and self-blame are unproductive ways of processing your grief, leading to further feelings of shame, anger, and even resentment.

Remembering that certain things are out of your control may help you process your loss and come to terms with it. Instead of finding reasons why you may be responsible for the outcome, look at how your responses to your loss may contribute to finding a resolution. 

6. Construct a meaningful narrative

The retelling of your story to your loved ones, support group, friends, and anyone who’ll listen will help you formulate a narrative on the relationship shared between you and the loved one you’re grieving. The more you tell their story, the more you shape the experience and give meaning to their life. As you grapple with your grief, you control what you want others to know and remember about your loved one. 

9. Seek therapy

Seeking grief counseling or therapy to help you cope with your pain and sorrow may alleviate some of the negative feelings associated with ambiguous loss. A therapist is critical in helping families and individuals strengthen their inner resources to help them face their losses. The therapist's role is to help you define your grief and loss experience, find ways of coping, and move forward from your suffering.

A grief counselor enables you to navigate the grief responses that are sometimes complicated to understand. They accomplish this with cognitive-behavioral or talk therapy that helps you shape your experience while helping you find solutions to your grief. 

The Ambiguous Loss Grief Experience

You can expect to come out of your grief experience whenever there’s a resolution to your loss. But not everyone who experiences this type of loss will ever fully get through it. Unfortunately, sometimes there are no answers for what has happened to your loved one or why. W

hen there’s no resolution to the tragedy, the ambiguous loss can lead a bereaved person to a profoundly painful grief experience that isn’t easy to come out of. Only time and a proactive approach to healing can bring a sense of relief for some. 

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