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  • Writer's pictureLorianne Plummer, LMSW

Grieving the Living - Examining the Loss of Roles and Relationships 

Grief is a difficult topic.  We tend to have a collective avoidance of pain. Our culture prefers to dictate the proper circumstances, allotment of time and environments where grief is accepted.  It visits us immensely and understandably around circumstances of death when we can validate the mourning process and participate in rituals that help relieve our suffering.   

Unfortunately, grief also enters our lives among the living.  When meaningful relationships change or significant roles are absent altogether, the symptoms of grief and loss can be overwhelming.   Grief exists when a divorce or breakup is not our choice and brings despair; when the lack of a mother or father leaves an ache for a parental figure; when a critical illness leaves one anticipating loss; when substance abuse brings limitations and boundaries with a friend or loved one; when separations stir loneliness; when an estranged relationship with a parent, child, sibling or friend leaves a feeling of abandonment. 

This type of grief can be dismissed in our culture and yet these are valid losses of roles and relationships with those who still live in our world.  We long for a different outcome or a restored relationship and yet, unable to change the circumstances, we are left with anguish, confusion, bitterness and isolation - ultimately grief.  

We cannot prevent or guard against loss.  Real courage comes when we address our experiences in the light of these “living losses” rather than deny them.   

So where do we begin?  We need to acknowledge the truth of what we miss, what we expected, what we hoped for, wanted and what we do not have. This requires some ‘reality testing’.   

First, with compassion, allow yourself to examine your living losses. 

What relationships are absent that you needed or wanted? 

What roles are missing from your life? 

Who has stepped away from you? Who have you stepped away from? 

What were the positive and negative elements of the relationship? 

Who has left a void and/or unanswered questions?  

What impacted the relationship, moving it towards changing or ending? 

What relationships are not likely to be restored? 

What relationships have ended but still leave you with anxiety? 

Answering the above questions can bring about emotions, truth, improved boundaries and healing.  Recognize your ability to feel, respond and reflect.  Your safety resides in self-advocacy, caring for your needs amidst your grief and responding accordingly. Journaling can be a tool to use amidst this grief.

Secondly, recognize and affirm your individual ‘pillars’ of strength. 

Self-Compassion - We often have more compassion for others than we do for ourselves.  We need to speak just as kindly to ourselves as we would to a friend experiencing these losses of roles and relationships.  Be a companion to yourself, engage with the grieving process and do not fight it.  In your self-talk and actions, be kind. What specifically do you need - do you sleep better if you exercise or walk?  Do you feel better when you write or do something creative?  Do you need connections on a daily basis to avoid a low mood?  Look for those things that bring relief and peace. You deserve care, respect and tenderness toward yourself. 

Emotions - Naming your emotions allows you to clarify and express them.  Disappointment, sadness, frustration, and confusion are likely present but what we most often express is anger.  Pause when you feel angry and be curious and honest about what emotion is underneath.  Brushing off these feelings or believing you need to be unemotional may intensify them.  Your mind and body can be affected by the repression of emotions.   

Truth - Acknowledge what is significant and true.  The relationship was something you wanted and right now it is different.  You are worthy of healthy relationships, respect and love.  Write out truth statements about the current situation.  Offer yourself a clear, calm space and pay attention to what cannot be changed. Clear boundaries may be necessary in the light of truth. 

Time - Sometimes we associate a particular legitimacy of time with grief.  Grief does not follow a calendar, either by the passage of measured time or by a social calendar that measures moments.  The right timeframe for coming to terms with this loss involves patience with yourself, being sensitive and acknowledging grief is not straightforward.  It does need space and room to unfold. The loss may feel manageable one day but not the next.  There may be moments of suffering as time passes or hopeful moments when the relationship or role is healing.  It is expected to ebb and flow. The phrase ‘right now’ can allow you to maintain a balance of ‘it has not always been this way’ and ‘it won’t always be like this.’ 

Validation - Grief of this nature will be recognized by others who grieve the living.  In their presence you will be understood and have a witness to your loss.  Others in similar circumstances will not ask you to contain your grief but can stand with you and validate your pain.  Hold those close that share similar losses.  

Rituals - Meaningful activities and self-care will help you move forward. You can decide what that looks like. This may include writing, walks in nature, creating art, planting, playing music, cooking, praying, chanting, movement, eating nutritious food, meditation, taking naps. Even crying is a healthy ritual than can ease physical and emotional suffering. Think of ways to create, connect and contribute.  

Support - Support from others is crucial in this part of grief work. Identifying who may best provide that support is your choice. Determine who can give good advice, tell you the truth, who will invite you for the holidays, who will share laughter, who can motivate you, who will listen well, and who will notice you are having a hard time.  Find support that balances your pain with a hopeful future. 

Your Story - Tell your story.  This type of grief is universal.  There is heartache when we lose meaningful roles and relationships.  Share your story as the burden of this grief is real.  Give it a voice and let it take up space in a healthy way.   

Character – This is a time to reflect on who you are.  What values do you want to show in these circumstances?  It is challenging to stay above the noise and not be pulled in to a defensive posture.  The urge exists to argue and explain your need, the loss and your views of responsibility and accountability. Take inventory of your character.  Be sure to challenge yourself as you intentionally behave and speak your values. 

Gratitude – The loss of a role or relationship may be out of your control, but gratitude in your circumstances can reduce anxiety.  Take time to admire the current relationships that bring you joy.  See the roles you play in others’ lives that provide meaning and influence.  You do hold worth and value. Although there is distress as you grieve the loss of some relationships, there is healing in reflecting on what you appreciate.   

“Grief is not a problem to be solved; it’s an experience to be carried.” 

Megan Devine, from her book, Its OK That You’re Not OK. 

If grieving a relational loss is overwhelming, gaining clarity and having support through counseling with a mental health professional can be beneficial.  It is normal to grieve these ‘living losses’ and healthy to ask for support alongside this experience.  

By Lorianne Plummer, LMSW 

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