I recently had cause to go to the funeral of an old school mate who died under tragic circumstances. Her death was sad but even sadder was the fact that her aged mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s was oblivious of what had happened to her.
Alzheimer is a terrible disease, a disease that steals one’s memory, that makes one oblivious to what is happening in one’s life and in the life of the person’s loved ones.
It’s the death of self, of who one is and death of who one was. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to be living and yet dead. Yes, I say dead because the person that was, is no longer and a stranger has taken up residence in their bodies.
How can you forget the person that brought you so much joy, that you sacrificed so much for, how can their birthdays, achievements, anniversaries and deaths mean nothing? How can one though living be dead, an onlooker in the events of their lives.
It occurred to me that sometimes some of us have gone through a patch where we have mourned someone or something that is still living as though they are dead.
A marriage that is dead, a child / sibling/ relative that has become an addict, a friendship that has died.
I don’t know about you but I have been there, I have had to mourn a marriage that changed in character till it was no longer what I knew or wanted and I can tell you that it can hurt so badly.
There are women who are already living like widows even though their husbands are still alive and they co-habit because as far as their marriage is concerned it is dead and buried. The man they knew and loved is no longer the man they are living with.
I have friends whose once loving and attentive mothers do not recognize them or says hurtful things.
I know people who have children that are mentally unstable who struggle with delusions and hallucinations or addicts who steal, cheat, debase themselves in the grip of the demons of their addictions.
In all these cases, the common denominator is that the person is physically alive but psychologically gone. The person we loved exists, they may look the same physically, we may see glimpses of who they were sometimes but they have changed in ways we don’t understand.
But regardless of how they look, the fact that they do things they would never have done, or say things they would never have said, even treat us in ways they never would have treated us, and they are not there for us in ways they previously were.
Surprisingly, there is a name to this feeling. The feeling of loss which has not resulted in death and it’s called “unconventional” or “ambiguous grief.”
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process.” says Dr.Pauline Boss, who coined the word. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.”
Unlike with death, there is no proof that allows for any sort of conclusion. There’s no funeral and there’s no script, so to speak, to follow.
But when somebody is just missing, oftentimes the families will just wait, and that can go on for years, sometimes for a lifetime.”
This can lead to difficulty in making decisions, dysfunction within a family or friendships, and general confusion derived from simultaneously harboring love and hate for the missing person. For instance, someone suffering from ambiguous grief may just wish the whole ordeal were just over but then feel guilty for those very feelings. “Those are normal reactions to an abnormal situation,” says Boss.
Th grief comes from the fact that although the person has changed, our love for them does not change. We remember the mother that was so attentive, the cherubic smile and innocent hugs of the child as a toddler, the love we shared and laughs we had with the spouse. Though we still have a relationship with the person, it has radically changed and we grieve the relationship we used to have.
Our feelings of ‘ambiguous grief’ may be sadness and yearning, anger and guilt or a range of other emotions. These emotions can become even more complicated than the grief that comes after a death when the behavior and words of the ‘new’ person causes us to question our old memories. Or worse, they can start to consume our brains as those old memories begin to fade.
Another complication of ambiguous grief is that many people don’t recognize it as grief. When those around us don’t acknowledge our grief, or make us feel that we have permission to grieve this sort of loss, that can make us feel lonely and isolated. It can be a hard type of grief to open up about because we know others may not acknowledge it.
If you are going through this kind of grief it is good to remember, though very hard to understand, that the illness is not the person. That it has not changed who they were even though it has changed who they now are. Grieve the loss of what was, hold on to the memories of a better yesterday and look for the advantages in what is today.
It may not be all gloom, some things die for better things to grow therefrom, so a better marriage can be birthed from the ashes of the marriage that has broken down. A different kind of friendship can exist and a greater understanding and empathy can be found in other relationships.