Grieving the Life You Expected: Nonfinite Grief and Loss
By Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C
From a very young age, we begin to develop expectations about the world around us. Our brains create rules to help us organize the boatloads of information we encounter each and every day. Some of these are simple, practical rules. For example, you might learn that a home is a place where you live that has a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. But as your world gets more complex, you learn that there are different types of homes – houses, apartments, condos, etc. The term schema describes rules, which allow us to learn information and then accommodate new and more complex information.
The rules we create as shortcuts to understanding and organizing the world don’t just apply to tangible objects. There are schemas (aka schemata) about people, roles, traits, and other aspects of our lives. They help us organize what we know to be safe and good. We use them to make sense of almost all aspects of how we live. We absorb subtle ideas about what values our family, culture, and society have collectively attributed to things, and these become connected to our schemas.
Our schemas help to create our beliefs about what an ideal life looks like, from small things to big things. Depending on where I grow up and the messages I absorb, my schema may include the value judgment that it is better to live in a house than an apartment. And though a condo and an apartment may look identical as physical structures, I may have absorbed the value judgment that it is better to own a condo than rent an apartment because I value property ownership. If you’re still struggling with the concept, check out this video.
Wait, wasn’t this article supposed to be about grief?
I know, this sounds like it has nothing to do with grief. But bear with me. These schemas slowly shape every aspect of how we organize the world, live in the world, and appraise the world. Schemas are critical to understanding nonfinite grief. The meaning and significance we ascribe to the things we want, expect, idealize, and fear in life begins early. Things can become meaningful to us long before we actually have or lose because of our ideas about those things.
When life is proceeding as we anticipated, we barely notice these schemas. If we don’t encounter anything that challenges or violates our schema, then we just go on living our lives. We tuck the things that happen neatly into our existing expectations.
Imagine I came from a childhood where my family and peers generally expected me to get good grades, go to college, settle into a stable career, meet a man, get married, and have children. That is what I saw in all my friends and family members around me. If everything proceeds seamlessly along that path, those schemas are just running in the background. They are often only barely on the edge of conscious awareness. But what happens if my life veers from that course?
Nonfinite Grief and the Loss of Plans, Hopes, and Expectations
Let’s imagine another situation – one where my life takes a different path. Perhaps I went to college, I met someone and I got married. My mind keeps seeking and expecting the other things too – a stable career, getting pregnant and having children. If I can’t find work in my chosen career or get pregnant, my life now diverges from my schema for a happy, successful, meaningful life.
And though I never had a stable career or a pregnancy and children, I did have those plans. I had that picture in my mind of the life I always imagined, aligned with my values and ideals. Nonfinite grief is the grief we feel when we lose these non-tangible things, watching our imagined future dissolve. In Nonfinite Loss and Grief, Bruce and Shultz define the grief that exists when life falls short of our expectations. They say that nonfinite grief is “contingent development; the passage of time; and on a lack of synchrony with hopes, wishes, ideals, and expectations”.
Nonfinite Grief Creates Fear
Usually, a negative life event or episode leads to a loss, but the loss has an ongoing presence in the person’s life. There is an ongoing dissonance between the expected life and the life being lived.
Often, one step beyond the uncertainty and the dissonance, is fear and dread. Of course there is always a fear of the unknown, and the chronic uncertainty that comes after a nonfinite loss. But sometimes it is more than that – the life that is now unfolding is one that my belief system schema tells me is something to be dreaded, feared, and avoided.
When I realize my career and plans for a family won’t be what I always imagined, there is a deep loss that I must acknowledge and grieve. There is also potential uncertainty about what my future will hold. But if my schema understands a life without children as something objectively dreadful and terrifying, this creates even more fear. Let’s be clear, here. If I’ve always wanted children and that doesn’t happen, there will be overwhelming grief regardless. But that fear can make adapting even more difficult.
If, instead, my schema accommodates that there are many types of meaningful families, some with children, some without children, my pain will still be immense. I still with have the devastating grief of losing the life I wanted and imagined. But I will not have the added barrier of believing the alternative is something fearful. I won’t assume that a meaningful life is impossible for anyone, even if I see it as difficult for me.
Nonfinite Grief is Ongoing and Separates One from the Mainstream or ‘Ideal Life’
One of the challenges of nonfinite losses is that they are ongoing. One specific event often creates the loss, but the impact of the loss continues across time. For instance, if I experience a devastating injury that leaves me paralyzed, this is a single event. But this isn’t simply a single event to be grief, but rather a loss that will be ongoing. Each aspect of my life impacted by the injury, in the present and the future, extends the loss.
Nonfinite losses often, though not always, create life where people feel their experience is now “other”. Rather than viewing the new life trajectory an alternative path, we see it as less-than, abnormal, and outside the bounds of a mainstream experience. (Schultz & Harris, 2011). This not only creates a distance between the self and other, but it also reinforces the path that is vs the path that should be.
Grieving The Ideal Life
Many of the examples of nonfinite grief that we’ve shared thus far involve an event that derails a trajectory. If I am a professional hockey player, in my first year in the NHL. I expect and imagine a long future as a player when an injury ends my career. It is easy to understand why I might find myself grieving what ‘could have been’ or ‘what should have been’ because I reasonably expected that life.
But what if my mother left me when I was just a baby? I never met her, nor did I ever have any expectation that she would be in my life or my future. Can I grieve something I never had or never expected to have? Great question, I’m so glad you asked. Though this type of nonfinite grief will have plenty of differences from that when our trajectory is actively derailed, this is still it’s own loss. The idea of a mother-child relationship is part of most people’s schema of the ideal life, the life that one should have. Even if we never knew a life on that path, we can still feel a deep sense of loss that we didn’t have the life we ‘should’ have had because our mother left.
I’m Experiencing Nonfinite Grief. What Do I Do?
There is no single solution and working with a therapist can be a big help. But on your own, you may find some of the following helpful.
Acknowledge the loss. Often these losses are not fully recognized by others. It is important to remind yourself that these are real and valid losses, even if they are not death-related losses. If you find yourself comparing losses, immediately shutting down your emotions by saying “it could be worse, I should just be grateful”, give yourself space for your feelings. Yes, it could be worse. And yes, you are also still experiencing something devastating that you are allowed to acknowledge and feel.
Practice dialectical thinking. As humans, we can be very black-and-white thinkers. We categorize things as good or bad, or right or wrong, when often things exist in shades of gray. Two things that feel contradictory to one another can both be true. It can be helpful to practice holding two truths at the same time, being open to the idea that there are many lives worth living. Even though you may not be living the life you always imagined and hoped for, that doesn’t mean it can’t have joy and meaning. Read more about dialectical thinking here.
Control the flow (or flood) of information. Imagine that your child suddenly receive a diagnosis of a chronic illness that will undoubtedly change the direction of the rest of their and your lives. What do you do next? If you answered “take to google and spend every waking hour in an internet black hole reading every medical journal article, personal blog, and reddit thread you can get your hands on” you’re perfectly normal. In the face of fear and uncertainty, we desperately seek information. Unfortunately, this quest for answers is not only overwhelming to your system in every way, but it often presents you repeatedly with information and stories that violate your concept of yourself and your child. Though this can feel impossibly difficult, try to ease yourself in to this new reality.
Explore your personal ideals and fears. Go back into your own history and consider messages you received about yourself, how life ‘should’ look, and what events should be feared. Try to be honest with yourself about these ways of understanding the world and where they came from.
Examine, reexamine, challenge, and reality test your fears and dread. I want to be clear, this isn’t trying to think your way out of a devastating loss. But it is acknowledging that sometimes those internalized beliefs we have are exacerbating our feelings of pain and dread is important. If you’ve never known someone with a severe physical disability that you now have, expose yourself to people living with physical disabilities. Now that you’ve understood or decided you won’t have children, if your friends and family all have children it can help to begin expanding your circle to meet other childless individuals. Meeting both those who are childless by choice, and those who wanted children can help you re-examine and challenge your assumptions about a life without children. If you’ve always feared those with addictions and not known anyone with an addiction, examine your fears by humanizing addiction. Expose yourself to people who have struggled with substance use or other addictions. Begin with those in recovery and expanding to those still battling active addictions.
Reconstruct your identity. With any nonfinite losses, your self-concept is deeply impacted. Who you understood yourself to be in the world or imagined you would be in the world can feel like it no longer aligns with who you are. Spend like connecting with the core pieces of yourself that remain intact. Acknowledge the roles and identities you have lost (or will never have) and those that you have taken on. Consider who you were, who you are, and who you hope to be.
Practice tolerating uncertainty. Easier said than done, I know. But life after loss – no matter what the loss – almost always involves some uncertainty. The degree to which we can tolerate that uncertainty correlates to our overall sense of well-being. Learn some skills for tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity.
Consider the idea of ‘adaptation’ rather than ‘acceptance’. “I will never, ever accept this” is a common refrain from grievers. And we get it. Acceptance is a complicated word, to put it mildly. The idea that one needs to feel acceptance sounds like we’re being asked to consent to this new, dreaded reality. Rather than focusing on acceptance, it can be helpful to focus on adaptation. Bruce and Schultz explain that there may always be moments of rejecting the new reality. People will almost always have fleeting moments of wishing for the life that ‘should’ have been. This can be true years or decades down the road. But we can continue to find the loss ‘unacceptable’, while still trying to adapt in our new reality.
Redefine hope. Like reconstructing identity, redefining hope is a critical component of many non-death losses. Though our inclination can be to fixate on changing the circumstances of the loss and maintaining hope that things will get back on track or go back to “normal”, this is often impossible. It simply reinforces a sense of helplessness. By facing the present moment, you can ask yourself what hope looks like in this new reality. You may need to find many new ways of understanding and measuring hope based on the current reality. How you define hope weill continue to change as you and your life continue to change.
By Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C Litsa Williams is a Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Litsa holds a Master's in Social Work and a Master's in Philosophy, and is a licensed social worker.
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