Grieving the Living

Grieving the Living:  Letting go of old versions of ourselves and others in order to make room for the realities of today and promise of the future


By Susan D. Writer, Ph.D.

“Dr. Sus”


Grieving is a natural part of life.  When we love people and lose them, we grieve to help us come to a place of peace and acceptance.  And as we come to terms with the often painful void that is created with that loss, we are able to find hidden strength to forge ahead with renewed purpose.  Part of this process is finding creative ways to capture the memory of the person that we have lost and incorporate that positive energy into our lives as we move forward.  For if we dwell too long in that place of looking backward with despair and sadness, we become stagnant, stuck and paralyzed, unable to grow.  Instead, we need to honor the past but live in the present and discover that we can let go of old roles and rules that no longer apply, which then creates space for new relationships to evolve and new opportunities to develop.


Most of us don’t realize that grief is not only a part of death, but it is also a part of all natural life transitions, whether gradual or sudden.  When we grow from being infants to toddlers, our parents grieve the loss of the sweetness of that ‘baby stage’ with our first smile and first words but they don’t necessarily miss the dirty diapers and all of the sleepless nights.  As we become toddlers our frantic parents chase after us as we explore and they often yearn for the days when we could all but crawl; they sometimes reminisce over those times when we seemed so innocent and docile as compared to the terrors we become as we push limits and test our parents’ patience while expanding our minds and our worlds.  Later in childhood we too learn the lesson of grieving in the experience of saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future when we transition in grade and school, experiencing changes in teachers, classrooms, schedules and friends.  But as we do so, we open doors to opportunities for new ideas, learning and development, and novel and exciting experiences and relationships.  When we marry a partner as adults, we shed our sole identity of “me” and enter into a union and a new expanded identity that includes “we”.   Our definitions of “family” change, as do our roles within them.  We experience a simultaneous sense of loss and gain as we leave the nest and safety of our families of origin and build a home and create a life with our partners for the future.  And when we experience heartbreak as a romantic partnership dissolves, we mourn the relationship that was lost.  Sometimes there is relief in the termination of a relationship and sometimes emptiness as we lose the love and support of another on whom we have come to depend.  But again, we find the resolve to live on without this person and eventually make room in our hearts for new people and new loves.  For the heart is an expansive organ that has a tremendous capacity to heal and grow to accommodate new people and experiences as we move through life.  And even though it can be excruciating while we are in the thick of it, there is hope and the possibility of happiness on the other side, if we find the courage to allow it.


The life transitions above are classic examples of how we grieve throughout our lives.  For those of us who have a loved one who struggles with mental illness or addiction, we are all too aware of how we can ‘lose the living’.   When that individual is in the throes of deep depression, mania, psychosis, anxiety, disordered eating, or any unmanaged mental illness or addiction, their behaviors are altered. They are not themselves – or at least not the version of the people that we have grown to know and love.   In some instances, we are able to guide them to reach out for professional help and get treatment, and in other cases we can only watch as they spiral down a dark or dangerous path.  No matter what the outcome, our relationship with this loved one changes as a result of what we are experiencing, separately and together, and we often feel a deep sense of loss.  But we must grieve the relationship of the past if we are to create a new one in its place for the future.


So many families come to me and ask, “Will he/she ever be the son/daughter I used to know?” or “Where is the partner that I married?”  Though these mothers, fathers, siblings, husbands and wives are just looking for some kind of reassurance that the circumstances will change or that their loved one will  ‘go back’ to the person that he/she ‘used to be’, this isn’t likely.  For though there may be remnants of the person we knew ‘before’ the illness or addiction , the change has occurred and all of us must learn to adapt.  The individual with the illness or addiction must learn to consolidate these new feelings, thoughts, behaviors and experiences into a new sense of self, and the family must learn to accept that person’s new identity as it emerges and develops.  Change, in and of itself, is inevitable, and it is often uncomfortable.  When we feel like we have lost a loved one to an illness or addiction, this change can feel even more poignant and excruciating, for both the individual and the community of love surrounding them.  But we all must honor these changes in our loved ones and recognize that if we are to have any relationship with them we need to learn to adjust and adapt on our end.  And we must also never lose sight of the fact that with change comes promise in as much as it brings loss.  In order for us to realize that potential for a new relationship, with new opportunities for connection and intimacy, we must grieve the old relationship, and essentially ‘grieve the living’ to allow for life to move on.


Grieving is a process and a necessary part of life.  In order for us to move forward, we have to leave the past behind us so that we don’t get stuck in an endless cycle of running around in circles to nowhere, as if on a hamster wheel.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t look back to gain a better understanding of ourselves, our history, and our experiences – for to never reflect on our past keeps us from learning from our previous mistakes and triumphs, which is just as much an impediment to growth as living in the past.  So we must grieve our past and honor its memory.  We must recognize that this takes intention, attention, energy and patience to grieve, and that we each have our own way of working through this process.  We all grieve differently, and these differences can tear families apart if we don’t learn to accept and respect our differences – which is even more challenging when all parties involved are emotionally fragile and exhausted.  But know that you are not alone in this process and there are better things to come just by having gone through it.  On the other side of grief is growth.  And on the other side of grief is also acceptance and peace.  But most importantly, on the other side of grief is love.