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When You're Mourning Someone Who Is Still Alive

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistDecember 10, 2019

When you hear the word “grief,” you probably associate it with death – most of us do. But death isn’t the only way that relationships end. One of the most common sources of grief, according to a WebMD survey, is the loss of a relationship with a person who’s still alive. Romantic relationships may end in breakup or divorce, friendships fracture, and family members become alienated after a falling out.

Mourning the living is a kind of ambiguous loss, a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss; grief is complicated when the boundary between having and not having the person is unclear (as with witnessing a loved one’s decline into dementia). These kinds of loss can be especially painful because there’s still the possibility of an ongoing relationship. Even if you know it’s for the best—like when cutting off an emotionally abusive partner—it can still hurt to lose that connection.

I lost a friendship this way over ten years ago, and at times it’s still painful. I’ve made a few overtures to try to rekindle the relationship, but the other person doesn’t seem interested. I’m left with bittersweet memories of many close times together. It’s easy for me to see the other guy’s fault in the unfortunate conflict that drove us apart, and yet I know I could have handled the situation better, too.

The self-blame and questioning are part of what’s most difficult about mourning the living. How much was I at fault? Could the relationship be repaired? Is it worth trying again? It may not even be clear what broke the relationship—sometimes it was more what wasn’t said or done than an obvious disagreement. 

Our relationships become a part of us, so when we lose the relationship we lose part of ourselves. Even memories of happier times with the person are tainted by the awareness of how it ended. The loss may be particularly painful around holidays, anniversaries, and other family celebrations, when the person’s absence feels like a presence.

If you’re mourning a living person, be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Allow yourself as much time as you need as you process the emotions, and expect there to be ups and downs. The grief may be delayed, too—sometimes it hits when you realize an ex has moved on, for example—so make space for whatever you experience. Human relationships are complex, so expect complexity when a relationship unravels.

When you’re hurting, surround yourself with those you love, and share what you’re going through with people who can support you. Writing about your feelings can be very constructive; you can even write a letter to the person you’re mourning, without sending it to them. The goal is to give yourself a chance to express and perhaps understand the mix of emotions you’re feeling.

A word of caution—resist the urge to look at the person’s social media posts, which is rarely worth what it costs. More likely than not you’ll just be torturing yourself as you see the carefully curated version of their life that they share on Facebook or Instagram.

If the relationship ended because the other person wronged you, think carefully about whether it’s time to forgive them. Forgiveness is a personal matter, and only you can decide when the time is right. It doesn’t have to mean that you reconcile with them; one might forgive an abusive parent, for example, and still have no contact with them. If you decide it’s time to let go, you’ll probably find that forgiveness feels like dropping a heavy weight.

Finally, sometimes we know we’re at fault for a broken relationship, and reconciliation may still be possible. If that’s true for you, consider what it would take to repair the relationship. The degree of forgiveness that’s available in this life never ceases to amaze me; I’ve seen family members come back together years after they had written each other off. So if the door is still open, decide whether you’re ready to walk through it.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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