Unconventional Grief: Grieving for someone who is living

14 May 2022

One of the hardest things you will ever have to do is grieve for someone who is still living. I genuinely believe this statement to be true and I really want to bring awareness that this type of grief is real and pervasive and needs to be validated. This blog discusses the grief process of the loss of my mum. I really hope that it may resonate with others in similar situations. 

Grieving for someone who is living is often defined interchangeably between unconventional grief, ambiguous grief, grieving the living and ambiguous loss. I will be using the term unconventional grief in this blog. 

What is unconventional grief? 

The unconventional grief process mirrors when someone close to you dies but can have an added intensity of not having any closure. This type of grief can feel much more severe than what you might experience when someone close to you dies. (Dr Alejandra Vasquez, Grieving Someone Who’s Still Alive: How It Works)

According to The American Bereavement Academy the below are the most common causes of unconventional grief.

• Mental Illness
• Drug or Substance Addiction
• Dementia
• Brain Injury
• Family Trauma

The Bereavement Academy states that dissimilar to when someone dies, you are unlikely to experience positive emotions while grieving someone alive. Just like when someone dies, you are likely to be overcome with sadness. However, the reminder of your sadness is constant every time you think of this person or hear about them.

A person will undoubtedly experience many emotions while grieving someone alive. These emotions may be more powerful and more confusing than the grieving process for someone who has recently passed. Anger is a prominent emotion that can rise to the surface. The grieving individual can feel anger towards their loved one for the issues they are dealing with and have a difficult time understanding that they may not be able to change, such as in the case of mental illness. While experiencing anger, you may feel guilty that you are experiencing anger or even guilt that you cannot control or change the situation.

My own experience of unconventional grief 

I can honestly say I am nowhere near out the other side of this. Every day is so challenging. I battle with a constant internal conflict and a grief churning through my insides. I spend many days overwhelmed with emotional pain and panic at the reality that the person who I spent so many years trying to help can no longer be in my life. 

There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about my mum. It ranges from unbearable sadness, constant flashbacks of the awful events I lived through with her and then feeling absolutely terrified that I will never be able to fill this huge gaping wound that seems irreparable from her absence. 

In reality, even in her presence, I was in fact grieving. She has lived with mental illness my whole life and this has never ever been far from my mind and I’m not sure it ever will be. But in order to try and build myself back together again I do not have the capacity to have her in my life. I was told over and over again that I would not survive by continuing the relationship and as much as I believe it to be true, surviving without her is also excruciating.  

Over my lifetime, I’ve repeatedly gone through a grieving process for her. She left when I was a child, and I was distraught. For all the absolute chaos that I experienced with her I still wanted her to be with me. I never spoke to anyone about how awful I found this. I wanted her back so much, probably the most I had ever wanted her. Instantly I felt this unbearable sense of loss, to know she didn’t have the ability to look after me was too overwhelming to comprehend. You brought me into this world and now you’ve chosen to leave me, that’s all I could think.

Then in my early twenties she had her worst mental breakdown which was so painful to witness. I tried to mentally prepare myself for her taking her own life and it was utterly heart-breaking for me and those around me. We got out the other side, but things never really improved dramatically, and my life became so heavily consumed with caring for her whilst constantly going through my own spectrum of emotions. A decade later and it has had to end and that’s where I now am, confronted with full-blown grief. 

So how do you cope with grieving for someone who is alive?

Validate your grief 

I think validation of what you are experiencing is so unbelievably important. I personally found discovering that there is a definition for this type of grief has been really helpful. You can feel an array of emotions and it can be such a challenge deciphering what it all means but knowing that you are experiencing grief really needs to be acknowledged. 

Please let yourself grieve 

It can be automatic to try and suppress your grief especially when it may not be acknowledged or understood by others and societally it isn’t really understood. However, if you feel up to it then sharing your experience with others who you trust may be a way of reducing isolation you may feel going through this process. 

Connect with other people who are experiencing similar situations 

I think this is so hugely valuable, it can be comforting even reading that others have or are experiencing unconventional grief. It is worth doing an online search, you never know what you might come across and it can have such a positive impact when you can resonate with others.

Allow yourself time 

You need time. I don’t know how much time, maybe none of us do but gradually the hope is that with time, the emotional distress of this experience will ease. I think it is just so important to hold onto any glimmers of hope that you will feel better again. 

x Rebecca x