There are many different types of grief in the world. Recently we talked about queer grief and what it can look like to honor that grief. We’ve also discussed the grief that comes with:
But what about relationships you never had? Can you grieve those?
The short answer is yes! And in fact, grieving the absence of something you needed or wanted but didn’t receive is a powerful step in healing. It says “this is something that I deserved and I am allowed to be upset that I wasn’t allowed to have it.”
So what does grieving a relationship you didn’t have actually mean?
A common example of this would be with our parents. If you grew up in a home where your parents didn’t provide emotional nourishment or support, or made you feel unsafe, this is a cause for grief.
It might not occur to you to grieve for parents who are still living, but what is actually happening is you are grieving for the parents you didn’t have. You needed parents who loved you and were emotionally available to you, but you didn’t have those. While you didn’t lose parents through death, you lost the idea that you could have that parent you needed when the parent you did have showed you they couldn’t be that person for you.
This grief, like all others, requires acknowledgment. Below are 4 tips for acknowledging and managing relationship grief:
Identify what it is you’re grieving:
In the example above, we talked about grieving for your childhood self for not having the parent she needed and deserved. In this sense you’re grieving for a loss of childhood, a lack of unconditional love or support, perhaps time lost due to unhealed wounds etc. When you look at the relationship causing your grief, ask yourself what it is specifically you’re grieving the loss of. Just like we said above, this is a powerful step towards healing. By acknowledging it you’re not only recognizing that you wanted or needed different things from the relationship, you’re also recognizing that it is reasonable for you to have wanted what you didn’t get. Just because someone wasn’t able to provide you with the relationship you needed from them, doesn’t mean you didn’t deserve it.
Let go of the expectation the relationship will change:
Using the example above: If your parents were neglectful when you were a child, it may take you until you’re an adult to recognize that you didn’t get the care you needed from them. As a child you need to believe your parents love you more than anyone because they are the ones who provide you with a home, food, clothes, everything you need to survive. We’re unable to fully reckon with that loss as a child, but as adults we are able to care for that inner child within ourselves and see that parent/child relationship for what it is.
By recognizing when something will not serve us, we validate our own worth. Instead of clinging to the hope that one day your parents could change, leave their actions out of your healing. If they stay as they are right now, forever, what can you do within your own life to help you fulfill that need that they couldn’t for you?
Allow yourself your feelings as they come up:
Grief isn’t linear. If you’ve heard of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) you might expect grief to come in a neat little checklist where you work your way from denial to acceptance and then you’re done. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. You can feel any number of the stages at any time. You might feel angry and depressed and then denial again. There is no formula to how you experience grief, so it’s important to just let yourself have those feelings. When they come up, don’t push them aside. If you’re angry, take a look at that anger. What is it telling you? What’s your anger actually about? What does that mean about your own needs and wants?
Talk about it:
There are a lot of benefits to talking about grief. Talking about it gives you the opportunity to really explore all the feelings that come up with your grief, and find healthy ways of meeting those unmet needs elsewhere in your life.
Grief is complicated and messy sometimes, but you shouldn’t have to go it alone. If you’re looking for someone to talk through your grief with, our therapists are here for you.