“Which is harder – mourning an actual loss or mourning the ‘ideal’ of something you never had?”
This question was recently posted to the wall of my professional services page on a popular social networking site. I thought this was an intriguing question and one you yourself may have pondered in one version or another.
Grief is a natural feeling we have in response to a loss. Many people immediately associate grief with the deaths of those we love, but there are many kinds of loss that can plunge us into the deep well of grief. Loss comes in seemingly endless varieties. Loss of a relationship, loss of your job, loss of your home or a treasured object. Loss of the feeling of safety after a trauma. Loss of functioning after an accident or a medical crisis. Loss of your sense of security or self-assurance. Loss of freedom or independence. Loss of property or material goods. We can feel grief in response to the loss of anything we love and cherish. Being bereaved is the state of having lost something precious to us. I feel grief, I am bereaved. Mourning is a verb. Mourning is the outward expression of the feeling of grief. Mourning, in a broad sense, includes whatever acts we engage in to help us express our grief. Crying, wailing, wearing particular items of clothing or jewelry, building altars or shrines, creating art that reflects our feelings, engaging in grief rituals, writing, whatever it is that we do with the purpose of expressing our grief. Alan Wolfelt, internationally noted author, educator and grief counselor, said, (and I completely agree with him), “Everybody grieves…but only people who mourn really heal and move on to live and fully love again.”
So, can we mourn something we never had? At first, the answer may seem to be no. If we must lose something in order to feel grief and the something was never a real thing that actually existed, it can’t really be lost, right? As so many seemingly straightforward questions are, the question of whether we can mourn the loss of an ideal is more complex than it first appears. I don’t know what the “ideal” was that the questioner lost, but I can imagine many kinds of “ideals” that can be lost. We often find ourselves in the position of having to face the realization that what we once thought was ours was never really ours to begin with. I believe there can absolutely be grief and mourning over those kinds of losses. Let’s imagine that her loss was what she once thought was her ideal relationship. If the person she had pinned all her dreams on turned out not to be the person they seemed to be, and the relationship seems now a sham, that kind of loss can be heartbreaking. Perhaps you have experienced such a loss. There may have been painful betrayals, realizations that the person you loved, and who you thought loved you, did not really share your values, or feel the same way you felt. You may have trusted and believed that you had found your soul mate, your ideal, and then when the relationship ended, the realization that it was never the beautiful dream you had believed in, came crashing down. So, was it real? I think the answer is yes. And so is the loss and the grief that comes with it. Therefore it can be mourned.
Another example of mourning the loss of an ideal is the very real grief caused by the loss of hopes and dreams of the future. Families whose children are diagnosed with disabilities such as Down Syndrome, or who receive a diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum, understand this kind of grief and mourning for the loss of an ideal all too well. When a beloved child is diagnosed with a disorder that will absolutely impact his or her future, quality of life, learning, or functioning ability, parents can feel a multitude of losses. Most of us imagine what our “perfect” child will be like before he or she is born. We imagine the wonderful things she will accomplish, the goals he will achieve. Our hopes and dreams for our children’s lives do not include hardships or pain that they may have to endure. Many families’ hopes and dreams for their children can seem all but destroyed when a diagnosis of a life-altering condition is given. Many families eventually learn to move forward and discover that their children possess amazing gifts. Eventually, they can come to celebrate their children’s unique qualities and see them as treasured testaments to the beauty and diversity of the human condition. This doesn’t mean that they don’t grieve and mourn the loss of the ideal life they imagined, a typical existence for their family, or an uncomplicated, usual course of development for their child.
The questioner on my page also asked though, “which is harder?”–mourning an “actual” loss or the ideal? I think in looking at what loss is, and the huge spectrum therein, we can conclude that “actual”, doesn’t necessarily mean something tangible. The loss of hopes, dreams, or an envisioned future, is definitely included in the arena of genuine losses. No, those are not concrete things that we can touch or see, but they are very real nonetheless. Grief comes in many packages. Whether one kind of loss, and the grief felt as a result, is harder to grieve or to mourn than another, is not a question that I can answer. There are many who feel that the death of a child is the “worst” kind of grief imaginable. In my personal experience, I can say that for me, in my life, based on my own experience of the death of my own child, I cannot imagine that any other loss I will experience will ever compare to that. The death of my son and my subsequent grief, I don’t think could ever be rivaled by any other loss in my life. This is true for sure of losses past, and I think I can accurately predict that it will remain true for losses future. The only other loss I could ever conceive in my own life that could bring the same kind of pain is if I ever have to endure the loss of my now living child. Hope is not a big enough word to describe my wish to never, ever have to live through that kind of pain again. However, that is only my experience.
Each person’s unique experiences of loss and grief cannot be held to another’s for comparison. Every one of us is different and responds in different ways to loss and to grief. I used to try to compare my own loss following the death of my son to that of a mother whose child had died of murder or violence, whose last moments were spent in fear or pain, and think, my loss is not as terrible as hers. I was trying to somehow make myself feel better, to help myself come to a place where I could stop feeling sorry for myself. But I came to realize that I was being terribly unfair to myself in thinking those kinds of things. I deserved to feel sorry, and to feel sorrow, for myself. Sometimes, I still feel sorry for myself. And that’s ok. My son will not be here with me, or any other member of our family, for the rest of our lives. I am sorry for all of us who don’t get to experience his physical presence, and all that would entail, for the rest of our lives. I know that things can almost always be worse, and I am grateful beyond words that my child died peacefully, surrounded by love, but to live in those kinds of comparison based thoughts is to diminish my experience as well as his. So, I stopped trying to make comparisons and I feel better for it. The same would apply for someone who tries on a regular basis to compare his or her loss to those of others in order to prove somehow that his or her loss is worse than others. That sort of comparing of grief never really works.
How an individual reacts to loss is very individual. Generally, the more we identify with, and the closer our emotional lives are entwined with the person, object or state of being that is lost, the more intense our feelings of grief. How entwined are your emotions and your identity with your home and all of your possessions? With your spouse or partner and all that relationship represents in your life? What about with your career? Your place of worship? Your friends? Your pets? Your investments? Your family? Various places and things and distinctive aspects of all that makes you who you are and which you hold dear? What if by some tragic turn of events any of those things were gone tomorrow?
The most important thing in getting through grief and loss, coming through to the other side, is having hope and having support. Research has shown that grieving people, no matter how acute the loss, who are able to identify some aspect of hopefulness, are able to move through grief with a better outcome. What is a “better outcome”? I think that means with the ability to feel functional, to feel as though you can contribute to the world, that you can feel happiness again, that you can begin new endeavors, and even though you may be left with a scar, you can move forward and not only survive, but thrive, in your life after loss. You may be in a place where hope seems hard to reach. But sometimes just hoping that you can get out of the bed today may be enough. You may hope to get out of the grocery store without crying, or hope that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today, or hope that you can get through the next five minutes. Honestly, having that little remnant of hope may get you through it. Without hope, you’d likely find yourself breaking down in the cereal aisle.
Find someone you can talk to who will not tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Non-judgmental support that will allow you to express and explore your feelings. Look for a support group in your area. Finding others who have experienced similar losses can be very encouraging and empowering. If you feel that you need some extra help, seek out a counselor or therapist experienced in working with people dealing with grief and loss. Above all, do mourn your loss. Find a way to express your feelings, do something, create something, engage in some activity that allows you express your grief, even if only for yourself. While you are hurting, remember to be gentle with and take care of yourself.
© Copyright 2011 by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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