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Healing the Grief of Living Losses: Understanding the Impact of an Unexpected Future

Open Sky Family Services Team

Each of us experiences losses throughout our lives, but what these losses look like and the resulting grief and sadness are unique to each person’s circumstances. Grief is most often associated with a finite loss—one associated with death and dying. However, grief is complex and can manifest from losses that may not be as obvious or recognized, leaving individuals confused about the source of their deep emotions. These are called living or nonfinite losses and can include losses that we, or those we love, have experienced.  

While living losses are less understood and often go unrecognized, addressing this type of grief can bring families into healthier balance. 

Living Losses

Nonfinite losses are defined as experiences that are enduring in nature, usually precipitated by a negative life event or episode that retains a physical and/or psychological presence in an ongoing manner.1 Some examples include the loss of functionality due to a disability, the loss of hopes and dreams, or the loss of our vision of how we thought life would be. Another example is the feeling of loss of someone who is alive but unavailable mentally or emotionally. Another challenge of nonfinite grief is the lack of rituals, like a funeral or memorial, to acknowledge the loss. 

Exploring living losses can be a common part of both student and parent’s work at Open Sky. Parents may grieve the loss of who their child once was, who their child is now, and the uncertainty of who their child is yet to be. Students may feel they have missed out on certain experiences, such as graduations or proms, due to being in treatment. Siblings may deeply feel the loss of relationship with their sister or brother or the loss of the family structure to which they are accustomed. This nonfinite grief may have started years earlier or more recently from an escalation of family dysregulation. Whatever the case, the experience of this grief may be overlooked as families focus on helping a teen or young adult in distress. It is important for both students and family members to recognize and address the feelings associated with nonfinite losses so that families can heal more fully. 

Characteristics of Living Losses

The characteristics of living losses can be experienced by an individual who has suffered a debilitating condition, diagnosis, or life setback or by someone who cares deeply about them. These characteristics may include the following: 

  • Ongoing fear and uncertainty about the future. A specific event may create the loss, but the impact of the loss continues forward in time.  
  • A sense of separation or disconnection from what is considered mainstream—a sense of not being normal, “otherness,” or stigma. This creates a distance between the self and others.  
  • Lack of acknowledgment or recognition of the magnitude of the loss by others, often because this type of loss is less understood than a finite loss, like a death.
  • An ongoing sense of helplessness or powerlessness associated with the loss.
  • Due to uncertainty of the future, conflicting thoughts and emotions may occur, such as dread, then relief, hope then hopelessness, anger then empathy, motivation to take action, then exhaustion. 
An Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student sits in a field of grass and looks off into the distance.

Impacts of Living Losses

Given that nonfinite losses go unrecognized or unacknowledged, those suffering from this type of loss experience the impacts of unresolved grief. Again, these impacts can be experienced by an individual or by someone who cares about them and can include: 

  • Chronic sorrow—defined as a set of pervasive, profound, continuing, and recurring grief responses resulting from a loss or absence of crucial aspects of oneself or another person to whom there is a deep attachment. (To differentiate from depression, chronic sorrow stems from the loss experience, whereas depression is typically more diffuse and difficult to attribute to one specific event or loss.) 
  • A feeling of being on a never-ending rollercoaster, impacting the individual and their family members physically, cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally. 
  • Avoidance of others and loss of connection, sometimes due to the “otherness” felt. 
  • Avoidance of or sadness around special days, such as birthdays, school graduations, proms, weddings, and holidays, because it is hard to imagine celebrating when we or someone we love is unable to participate in or attend these events. 
  • Guilt and self-blame. For Open Sky students, this can be related to a loss of autonomy and guilt over distress experienced by their family members. For parents, this can manifest as guilt over their parenting or self-blame for their child’s suffering.  

Hope and Healing for People Experiencing Living Losses

People mourn for what has not been achieved when life doesn’t meet our expectations or hopes. Grief for what “should” or “could” have been goes far beyond disappointment and requires acknowledgment and processing for true resolution and emotional healing. 

Steps that may lead to healing include: 

  • Identify and validate the loss. Recognizing and naming the loss is the first and most crucial step to healing and growth. For many, recognizing this misunderstood type of grief provides significant relief and allows them to move forward with greater confidence and empowerment.
  • Work to accept or adapt to the loss and let go of what cannot be controlled.
  • Re-establish a more realistic self-identity. One’s identity is often affected by a living loss, and redefining this identity to better match reality can help to move forward more authentically. 
  • Accept ambivalence and the notion that two things can be true. Conflicted feelings are normal, and two seemingly contradictory things can be true. This is called dialectical thinking.
  • Redefine hope. While many who have experienced living losses hope to return to “normal,” this is often unrealistic. By accepting the present circumstances, one can establish what hope looks like in this new reality.
  • Identify resources and allow others to support you. Resources can be personal or professional and include help or support from friends, extended family, therapists, grief specialists, and online resources.  

Heal Living Losses at Open Sky

Open Sky has worked with students and their family members who have suffered from grief associated with the family’s struggle with a child in treatment. The program provides the opportunity to identify, validate, and address the grief so that all family members can move forward toward healing more authentically. Some ways we do this are: 

  • We acknowledge that individuals don’t move on from grief. Rather, they are supported in moving forward with grief.
  • We provide a healing, distraction-free environment that allows students to better understand their experiences and emotions related to the grief associated with a living loss. 
  • We provide several therapeutic opportunities for students to work through their grief and sadness while in the field, including mindfulness activities, yoga, hiking, expressive arts, individual therapy, and group work. 
  • We encourage students to receive support from their peers and accept the comfort that living in a community provides. We encourage family members to identify and utilize their own support networks and resources. 
  • We support family members experiencing grief through weekly family sessions, allowing for the range of emotions people may experience as they process their feelings associated with finite losses. 
  • We encourage family members to engage in a parallel process through the Family Pathway and possibly parent coaching, providing an opportunity to work through their own grief alongside their child in the field. 
  • We ensure that students and their family members feel heard and validated as they express their range of feelings associated with their grief. 
  • Open Sky’s Family Quest experience is a great opportunity to acknowledge and process such living losses together. 
A family at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy smiles together on a bright, winter day.

Key Takeaways

  • Nonfinite, or living losses, are experiences or life events that result in grief and chronic sorrow.  
  • Living losses are less frequently understood, identified, discussed, or acknowledged than finite losses like death. 
  • Living losses present unique characteristics such as ongoing fear and uncertainty and a sense of not being “normal.” 
  • The impacts of living losses are similar to those of unresolved grief. 
  • Identifying and validating the living loss is the first and most crucial step in healing and regaining hope 

January 27th, 2023

Open Sky Family Services Team