Grieving the Living

The long and difficult journey . . .

Your loved one is gone; the person who was such a big part of your life isn’t there to talk with you and celebrate life with you. But, she is still alive and you see her almost every day. I consider this a strange experience that happens almost exclusively with Alzheimer's disease, though I’m sure there are other diseases that follow similar paths.

We all know our loved ones will die someday, but we often expect that they will pass away, we will say goodbye in our own way, and then begin the process of grieving and healing. However, when dealing with the ailing health of someone with Alzheimer’s, the person’s death can often come in long drawn-out stages each accompanied, it seems, by its own moment of grief.

Most people have heard of the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but it is odd to experience those stages when that person is still living and breathing in front of you. Someone with Alzheimer’s can be relatively healthy, but it still feels as if that person is gone.

Grief can accompany different types of situations besides just death. We can grieve the end of a marriage, the loss of a friendship, the end of a job or career, and certainly, we can grieve the loss of the person we know and love, even as they still live.

I keep using the word person. As people we are not just our bodies, our personalities, our beliefs, or our choices; but we are a sum of all those things. For example, a husband might love the way his wife’s hair smells. That simple, but meaningful feeling is composed of the physical feel and smell of the person as well as memories and feelings the husband has for his wife. If that wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and for instance, no longer recognized her husband; the husband might still love the smell of his wife’s hair but now grieve the loss of the person and memories connected to that physical being who is here and yet not here. I would wager the person behind the smell is what the husband loves rather than the other way around.

Therefore, when our loved ones continue to be but diminish in their ability to be themselves, it is right and it is normal to grieve. Like grieving the death of a loved one, there is no easy advice or quick solution, but nevertheless, the journey of grief must be undertaken. Sadly, for those with loved ones with Alzheimer’s or similarly acting diseases, that journey often begins much sooner.

Yet, as with any type of grief, give yourself grace, reach out to those around you, and do not be afraid to seek help from those trained and willing to help you, such as a hospice social worker, spiritual counselor or bereavement coordinator. Recognizing your grief and beginning to address it in a healthy way, will likely help you say goodbye to your loved one in a more meaningful and peaceful way.