When the Person You Loved is Now a Hologram: Grieving the Living & Other Pain

Photo by Chayene Rafaela on Unsplash

But in our hearts we know that it’s inevitable
Though it’s hard to let you go I know I must
Sometimes memories just ain’t enough
Sometimes you out grow the ones you love

Goodbye x Lyfe Jennings

Ambiguous loss.

It’s the grief you experience when someone you love morphs into something almost unrecognizable. It’s what friends, family, and colleagues felt when I experienced my first manic episode a few years ago. It’s what a son feels when his father is diagnosed with dementia. And in a way, it’s likely what the individuals in this article are living with right now.

We typically think about the finality of death when we talk about grief. Ambiguous loss, however, occurs when someone we care for is still physically present but psychologically absent, or when the inverse is true. We don’t know who this new person will be when they return, if they ever do.

It’s grieving the living.

Dr. Pauline Boss, who’s work on ambiguous loss spans over 40 years, is the pioneer of the term, a clinician, an educator, and a researcher. Dr. Boss says, “ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent. It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place.”

If your world is already on fire, unmanageable, wholly fragile and breakable, how much more does the pain of loss weigh on you? Many of us have found ourselves in a private mode browser, searching the internet for breadcrumbs that will tell us where exes have ended up. Who’ve they married. If they’re happy…happier. Others have opted to forgo family dinners and holidays for the sake of their mental wellness, their lives. Disdain for their salient identities or choice in partners has been made evident from conversations, debates, arguments, and empty rows at weddings. 

Loss is loss, though varied and inevitable. Acceptance, they say, is necessary, anger is expected, but we miss the person grieving when we attempt only to fix them. To rid them of their pain. To move them through stages that aren’t even linear in the first place.

Lily, 33, New Jersey, She/Her. 

He’s my ex-husband and the father of my two oldest sons. We met when I was 18 and got married six months later. I’ve known him almost 15 years now. He had an unhealthy relationship with substances for many years before it became what I would consider an addiction. His worst addictions were heroin and meth.

The turning point was the arrest. It happened while he was picking up ecstasy to sell. At that point I realized that his family wasn’t his first priority and that we probably never would be. Regardless, it wasn’t worth it to wait around and find out. I couldn’t risk putting our kids in danger anymore.

It was hard at first. He was my safety net, and I didn’t really know how to be on my own. He was a good dad and husband when he was clean, sober and thinking straight. That made it hard to leave. When he went to prison for the ecstasy, it was much easier to distance myself and become independent from him. When I finally knew I was done, for real done, I felt like a weight was lifted. I felt free and relieved and like I could finally breathe again. I didn’t really find myself and grow up until I left that relationship. It was the best decision I ever made. Our relationship wasn’t healthy. I think if I had stayed with him I would be extremely unhappy. I could’ve gotten sucked into that lifestyle and just lost everything.

We still keep in touch because of our children, but he hasn’t really been a father to them since he went to prison when they were three and five. Over the past nine years, he’s been in and out of jail and struggling with addictions. He’s currently in prison again and we communicate maybe once a month. I honestly don’t really ever think about him unless we’re talking. I know some people think you look at your child and think about the other parent or whatever, but it doesn’t even dawn on me that they have a father sometimes because he hasn’t been there.

On the other hand, it’s really sucks for my boys that their father isn’t around. It definitely affects them, and I hate that. It makes me so angry. I don’t understand how someone chooses drugs over their children. I’ll never understand that. I just try to let all that go. And, unfortunately, I kind of just forget he exists most of the time. 

Teresa, 31, Missouri, She/Her. 

I once saw a Reddit comment that said, “You can finally let someone go when you’re brave enough to face the fact that they didn’t care as much about you as you did them.” This is when I knew I could cut him out of my life, someone I’d been through so much with. He was repeatedly awful to me and dismissive of the boundaries I set. I asked to be treated better but he didn’t care. For my sanity, I finally pulled the plug on the friendship simply by not discontinuing a text conversation. He never reached back out to me either.

Even though the decision was clear to me, it hurt like hell. I grieved privately and didn’t tell anyone. I hoped that he’d suddenly treat me better, but a week of silence turned into a month. That turned into a year, and now it’s been almost two years. I still have a tiny sliver of hope, but I know that holding a place for someone who wasn’t treating me well isn’t doing me any favors.

It’s so surreal to see the city where he lives pop up on my blog’s Google Analytics. It’s odd when he appears as a friend suggestion on social media. And, it’s unsettling for me to hear mutual friends talk about him. It’s like he became a hologram in my life, an abstract memory of a person, that I can barely picture anymore. I feel grief and anger whenever he shows up on my screen. Those feelings eventually turn into sadness because there truly was nothing I could have done to keep patching things together, especially if he wasn’t going to treat me better. 

Samantha, 28, New York, She/Her

I met my best friend in 8th grade. Jordan was the water to my fire, and we always laughed like no one was watching. Sometimes I’d think people were annoyed by how much fun we were having. It was one of the healthiest friendships I had. We ran wild and free. And then Jordan turned to drugs.

I always remember her saying she liked to experiment and she won’t get addicted. I had zero idea of what was happening, and only discovered things in bits and pieces. Over the years, she’d bring me around her boyfriend and his friends: they all struggled with addiction. I stuck out like a sore, uncomfortable, thumb. They were never kind or welcoming, just mean. 

One day, one Jordan’s many guy friends got mad at her for going to smoke with another guy. I didn’t understand until he told me she was smoking heroin. I cried my heart out. We tried intervention but she lied to my face to protect her habit. Jordan continued to lie consistently from that point forward, spiraling the entire time. But she was a functional user, and maintained school and a full-time job) so I was always thrown off. 

I was 25 when it all came to a head and I actually punched her straight in the face. I’ve never been so furious in my life, and had never punched anyone in the face. 

It took three years for me to actually miss Jordan. I’ve come to accept that she will always be my best friend. we had the most fun I’ve ever had growing up. I pray for her sobriety and have even ran into her boyfriend two times and mother once, when I was thinking/worried about her. I think God sends those life jackets when you need to be reassured.

I know I was mad at Jordan the addict-self, not her. I think you have to hold onto the good to grieve the loss: the good memories, the funny stories, and the person’s best self. I’m still learning though. And I’m still rooting for her.

Elle, 26, California, She/Her

I’ve known Giovanni and Alexa since middle school – 11 years. In college, they stopped wanting to hang out with me even when I would tell them when I’d be home for holidays. They both regularly visited my university’s campus to meet up with another friend and I wouldn’t find out until later. As we grew apart, I started to notice how they treated me and other people. They gossiped about friends and made fun of them behind their backs. They openly skipped my birthday. At there were times that they disrespected me to my face.

The big turning point was during my college graduation. I saw Giovanni and Alexa there and they didn’t even acknowledge my existence. They were only there to cheer on my friend instead. Up until that point, I had assumed and thought we were all friends. I tried reaching out before then, but when their plans didn’t align with my own, they claimed I was too busy.

That’s when I cut ties. 

I’ve still felt sad and uneasy throughout this entire process, even though it’s gone on for years. I think about I confronted them once about not treating me poorly and they denied it. In the midst of everything, they got others to end friendships with me too. 

My grieving process has been frustrating. Up until last month, I was regularly looking at their social media to see what they were up to because I still cared about them. Plus, there have been multiple times in the past few years where I have felt like I have made a mistake in breaking up with friends in general. Occasionally, I forget the friendship happened. But often, I miss the friendship for what I thought it was.

Sophie, 53, Kansas, She/Her

I was 17 when I got pregnant with Adam, but I had siblings that were five, four, and two, so I had no fantasies about what raising a baby would be like. I had it happening all around me and none of it seemed fun.

His biological dad, Clark, and I were best friends, and had been since we met in 8th grade. We were each other’s biggest fans. I was positive that any child made from bits of him and bits of myself would be the greatest human being ever born, and as arrogant as his father and I might have been, I knew that baby deserved much better parents than we would be. I wanted him (I’d hoped it was a “her” at the time) to have two grown and educated parents whose main goal in life was to have a family, and to raise a human into the best version of itself possible.

I hoped that Clark and I might become those people some day, together or with other people, but I knew we were not then. We were still seniors in high school. We were both probably considered underprivileged kids, going to a college prep school paid with public funds. We knew the life we’d come from, and we wanted more than that. We were excited to go into the world and discover all there was to know. Clark had just been accepted to Yale with almost a full scholarship. I was hoping to make it into the New School.

There was no way a baby could fit in that world.

Clark asked me to marry him, and recently reminded me that my reply was: “What? And ruin THREE people’s lives?”

Here’s how I imagined it.

I would give up going to college. I really believed Clark was smarter and more talented than I (still do), so of course he should go to school. And I would be the stay-at home-mom. We’d have some really lousy apartment off campus where I’d sit all day trying to take care of a crying baby, while daydreaming about what Clark was off learning as I became bitter about my “wasted opportunities”. Clark would be with fascinating, intelligent people all day and then come home to me: tired, in my pjs covered with throw-up, with nothing to talk about, and cranky with Clark for doing what I wanted him to do in the first place.

I was somehow smart enough to see that the biggest loser in that picture would be our baby, sitting in the high chair and crying while we fought. I didn’t want that for any of us. I knew we could all have better.

My son’s name is Adam. Kansas is an open adoption state, so I knew that legally he could find out who I was when he turned 18. That helped. I don’t know if I could have made my choice if I didn’t know there was a chance that he’d feel connected to me and find me someday. I also went through a private adoption agency. They let me choose his parents and write them a letter they promised to give Adam when they deemed he was old enough. Adam’s parents would send photos and short updates to the adoption agency throughout his childhood. The adoption agency would pass them on to me. Again, I don’t know that I could have made the choice to not keep him if I wouldn’t have had that assurance.

The first few years were very difficult for me, and that’s probably putting it mildly. The first few months were the worst. All I could feel every minute was how much I missed him. Just like with the daughter I later was able to keep and raise, every atom in my body longed to be with him.

Adam was born in the 80s when they let you stay at the hospital for a while after you had a baby. I spent 4 days there with him in my room every minute. Everyone advised me against it, but I was stubborn. I was positive it was what Adam and I both needed. I knew it might be the only time in my life I’d get to be with him. And I wanted him to know in those days that he was so, so loved. I hoped and prayed we’d form a connection that would somehow stay with him. I do not regret that — at all. I sometimes wonder if that’s why he always wanted to know me. If that’s why he eventually found me.

I understood other’s options back then, and still do. It may have been easier in those moments to have just not seen him and gone home as soon as possible. But easier isn’t always best.

During the first few years, I thought of him on the 17th of every month (his birthday). And then, like every loss, it got less painful and less consuming. At some point, when he was still in single digits but getting older, the adoption agency closed and I lost touch with his parents. I always felt like it was totally his choice of whether he’d search and find me. It was perfectly fair if he didn’t. And so at some point, I had to build a little wall around my hurt and tell myself I could think about it again after he was 18. I kind of locked it all away until them.

He was 14 when he sent me an email.

When his parents and I were in contact, they would often tell me how smart he was — which never surprised me because I was expecting that. At 14 he had finished high school and was about to start his first semester at his state university. His mother had taken him on errands that day and they were at the bank, looking at papers in the bank box. She knew the adoption papers were in there, and she knew Adam knew the adoption papers were in there. So she let them be accessible while she tended to other things. Adam read the papers.

This was the late 90s and not many people knew about the internet, but I already had my own web page and domain name by then. I made sure to put my full name and email address in enough places so that anyone who did a web search for it could find me. I was thinking 100% about my son. I wanted it to be easy for him to find me someday. Clearly I didn’t lock the thoughts of him completely out of my mind.

So when he looked, he found me, and wrote me the sweetest email. He wasn’t sure it was me. He was such a little baby when I think of it now, just 14 years old, reaching out to ask if I was his birth mom. To see if I cared.

I answered right away. We talked tons and tons.

Fast forward to today, Adam’s 35 now. He’s been a comedy writer on a major late night TV show, he lives in the middle of Manhattan with a wife I love and my grandson (who is actually and truly the greatest human to ever be born.)

Being back in Adm’s life, and his choice to make me such a part of his wonderful little family…well for me this is the greatest story of my life. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It makes me feel happy and complete in a way I could never dream of putting in words. It feels good, and it feels right, and it feels whole. It makes all those tears that teenaged me cried worth it to see the man he is now, and the family he’s creating on his own.

It’s very hard for me to give advice to young people in that situation. I know that it has worked out beautifully for me, but it doesn’t for everyone. I had a lot of things going for me at the time I got pregnant that made it easy for me. I was able to finish high school. My parents didn’t kick me out; my mother was my biggest support. And it was a different world in the 80s. However, I would always, and still advocate that adoption should be considered as a valid option in an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. It is not for everyone, but it can turn out wonderfully.


Some names in this article have been changed.

Published by Sinclair P Ceasar III

Sinclair Ceasar is a Christian mental health speaker and writer.

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