When we think of grief, we most often think of the mourning that comes after someone has died.
But grief is so much wider. We grieve because of loss and life can dish up all kinds of loss.
Those losses can trigger the same emotions and the same physical responses we experience when someone we love has died.
It’s a myth that we only grieve someone who has died.
Because we can very much grieve someONE who is still living. And we can grieve someTHING that has died.
Grieving Someone Still Living
When you grieve someone still living, it often feels like a death that happens again and again. You grieve the life they are living. You grieve the loss of relationship you could have had. And you grieve the loss of hopes and dreams you had for them.
You can grieve a child making destructive choices.
You can grieve a spouse who’s betrayed.
You can grieve someone physically present but emotionally absent.
You can grieve someone who’s walked away.
You can grieve someone you never got to meet.
Abby understands what it’s like to grieve someone who’s still living. For years, she’s stood by and rather helplessly watched someone she loves fight for his life against addiction. She can’t fix it or convince him there’s a better way. But can’t walk away from him either.
It’s a loss that happens over and over and over — fresh grief each time there’s a relapse or a broken promise or a phone call that brings new fear.
“Grieving someone who’s still living is like constantly waiting for the worst to happen,” Abby describes. Even if you try to wall up your heart against the pain, it gets breached again and again.
Julie’s grief is a bit different. Julie’s daughter was born with a disability they’ve never been able to diagnose that causes multiple health issues and delays. Julie says when she first learned her daughter would have lifelong disabilities, she “grieved not having a ‘normal’ daughter” as well as the loss of everything they wouldn’t experience: “clothes shopping and wardrobe sharing, attending mother-daughter events, long talks, walking through the dating process.”
It wasn’t a one-time loss. As her daughter grew, Julie’s grief actually intensified. She watched her daughter age but the gap between what her daughter could do and friends her age were doing widen. Every milestone for her peers brought new grief for all her daughter would never get to experience.
Grieving SomeTHING that has died
We can also grieve someTHING that has died. This one often surprises us, catching us off guard when we feel the intensity of emotions.
You can grieve a dream that’s been lost.
You can grieve something longed for that never came.
You can grieve an unwanted job change or job loss.
You can grieve life as it could have been but for a diagnosis.
You can grieve a season of life that’s over and will never come again.
Mothers just emptying their nests and staring at a future altogether different know what it is to grieve someTHING.
“Sometimes we grieve motherhood as moms and that season of our lives that was so busy and focused on raising our children,” says Michelle Niertert, a licensed professional counselor. As we’re letting go of the season that’s gone and trying to find our place in the next, Michelle says grief makes us wonder whether we’ll ever be as happy as we were.
She says that kind of grief can look like hopelessness or even disillusionment.
Dr. Michelle Bengtson, author of Hope Prevails, says we can also grieve when life “uproots us from what we know and love.” Even good job changes that entail exciting moves can leave us grieving for relationships we left.
Dr. Bengtson says our culture doesn’t identify the grief that’s all around us.
We don’t have conventions for the person grieving someone still living or the one who finds herself grieving something that’s died. We don’t send cards or hold a service to memorialize what’s been lost.
This grief is often borne alone and quietly.
We need to know — it’s okay to grieve someone still living and it’s okay to grieve something that’s died. We need to make room to process the emotion and the physical effects that may come with the grief and we need to give ourselves grace to rest more, shed tears, feel sad, fight despair and eat cereal for dinner on the hard days.
Lament. Mourn. Grieve.
God who made us understands what breaks a heart and how to bind up every kind of wound.
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