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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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: