Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who is Alive

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I’ve been getting ready for a series of new beginnings. Seeing the end of old chapters and the beginning of new ones is not really easy for anyone, me especially. I’m a pretty sentimental gal and I hold onto memories and people and I hold onto them hard. I would call it a strength and a weakness to love people so completely and passionately. I was recently looking for the right words to describe some very strong feelings I was having about someone who is no longer in my life. This person is not dead, but the person I used to know is gone and will never be back. So why was I feeling the same way I would feel as though this person had passed?

Ambiguous Grief

As a nurse, I have encountered many grief situations with patients and experienced my own individual grief in some moments. I have lost dear friends and family members and felt “classic” grief. I have worked hard to help others through their own grief. Anyone who works every day with people can testify that we quickly learn that emotions are not always felt the same and there are many ways that grief is experienced. Grief, felt for someone who is still alive or missing from somewhere, is called ambiguous grief. Ambiguous grief can present itself with the loss of someone who has disappeared and may never return, like when a condition such as Alzheimer’s disease causes the loss of someone’s personality or who they truly are, or when someone begins to make choices and do things that turn them into someone unrecognizable to us, such as with addiction.

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In my situation, a person I loved suffered from addiction and turned into a monster compared to who they used to be. They went from being someone I knew better than anyone to a complete stranger. Unpredictable and nothing like their old, vibrant self. I was hurt by them physically and emotionally as a result of their choices and actions and eventually had to sever ties to them. It was much like them dying at the time. I was not prepared to end the relationship and did not want to. It was something I felt I was never going to be able to completely heal from, and there were lasting effects on my life from the whole ordeal.

The Five Stages of Grief

The “Five Stages of Grief”, also known as the “Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle”, is a very generalized framework of grief that people often experience. These stages include denial anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and do not necessarily reflect the order everyone passes through them. They are simply a basic understanding of grief.

I cycled through these stages more times than I could count over the last 6 years. The grief started before they had even exited my life. Sometimes I would move forward and feel I was almost to the stage of acceptance when I would fall right back into the anger, depression, or bargaining associated. I did my best to not deal with it at all when I could, which is never the answer.

Learning

I have learned some important things along this path of grief that I wish I would’ve known.

  • Acknowledge when you have lost something or someone, even if it is just a part of them, despite the loss not necessarily being a death.
  • Find other people who share your experiences and support each other. Who knows your grief better than someone else who is going through the same thing?
  • Cherish your happy memories. Nothing can take them from you.
  • Do not allow old, happy memories to cloud your vision when someone is no longer themselves and there is no turning back.
  • Don’t let rose colored glasses (aka your love and the past) give someone the chance to continue to hurt you if that is part of your situation as it was mine.
  • Live your life and embrace your grief so you can work through it.

Recently, I was confronted with this old stinging grief. I came to an imaginary crossroad in my life where the sign read “Move on” to the right and “Return to grief” to the left. I have taken that metaphorical left so many times. This last time I chose to take a right and leave this grief behind. Although I feel I may look back on that person in rare moments and feel a sadness, I choose to never feel this way again. It’s time to move forward with the happiness I deserve.

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With so much love,

Just Ask the Nurse

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