What Might Have Been: A Nontraditional, but Significant Kind of Loss
Ah, spring. The time of year when a sea of gold descends upon us here in Nashville. And no, allergy sufferers, it’s not just the pollen. It’s the jersey-clad, rally-towel-waving, banner-flying, Nashville Predators fandom that takes over the city during the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. And it was never more rabid than during the team’s Cup Final run in the spring of 2017. For a couple of months that year, it was unlike anything Nashville had ever seen. And we believed that team could win it all. But suddenly one night in June, it was over. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Not to a team that had been the last to make the playoffs, a team whose players had suffered injuries galore, and still had somehow made it that far. And yet, it just wasn’t meant to be. If you were around that spring, or if you’ve ever rooted so long and so hard for something that didn’t come to pass, you’ve probably experienced the same kind of heartsick letdown that followed that Game 6 loss. To be clear, sports championships aren’t exactly the stuff of life and death. But they illustrate a type of loss that isn’t talked much about: the loss of what might have been.
When we hear that someone has experienced a loss, or is grieving or mourning, we usually make the assumption that they have lost a loved one or something vital to their happiness and well-being, such as their home. It’s long been that way in our culture, though more recently we’ve expanded our notions of loss to include experiences such as infertility, miscarriage, and the death of pets. However, just like in the hockey reference described above, what happens when something that we expected to happen, doesn’t? This type of loss often goes unrecognized because it doesn’t fit into our culture’s traditional definition of something that is “worth” mourning. And when we (or others) don’t recognize something as a loss, we don’t feel like we’re allowed to grieve. But when grief goes unresolved, it can morph into something else, like depression or anxiety. In fact, unresolved loss is often the “root” of the problems that bring people into therapy. Let’s take a look at some common nontraditional forms of loss around what might have been.
In my experience, one of the most common nontraditional losses of this kind occurs in close relationships, when there is grief about what a relationship could have been. This type of loss can occur in friendships, relationships with siblings, and romantic relationships. But its impact seems to be felt most strongly when it happens in the parental relationship. Most mothers and fathers strive to parent in the most effective way possible, and don’t intentionally set out to hurt their children. But certain circumstances can lead to an ineffective, often outright hurtful parenting style. Those who struggle with alcoholism, for example, parent while under the influence, when they’re usually not at their best selves. Or those who grapple with severe depression parent while being unable to function at the most basic level, let alone at the level that healthy parenting requires. Regardless of the reason, parents do sometimes become unable to offer the unconditional love, support, and acceptance that their child needs. And just because a child reaches adulthood doesn’t mean that that need goes away. This is why most people with this kind of loss report that they continue to try to please their parent, despite having been met with rejection their whole lives. They’ve become tired of trying, yet may be reluctant to accept the loss of hope that their parent will ever truly approve of them. They often enter therapy when they just can’t try anymore. And the grief work done in therapy involves deciding whether to continue to expect anything from the parental relationship, and how to make peace with what it could have been.
Another “what might have been,” nontraditional form of loss occurs around career paths. This kind of loss can occur anytime during a person’s career. However, I’ve noticed it coming up so frequently among college and university students that I’ll use that population to illustrate it. Maybe more so than ever, students these days begin thinking about their career paths in high school, or even earlier, as they discover their talents and passions and start focusing on a particular educational track. Maybe they’ve got a knack for numbers, and they’re encouraged to pursue accounting. Maybe their talent lies in science, and they decide to shoot for medical school. Or maybe their athletic prowess has paved the way to a full scholarship and talk of professional play. But what happens when there’s a bump in the road and those plans don’t come to fruition? Consider the mathematically- or scientifically-minded student who runs up on some required classes he can’t pass. Or the star athlete who has a career-ending injury. Not only are these students left to redirect their course and find a new career path, but they’re left with the loss of what might have been. And if well-meaning parents, friends, and advisors emphasize the importance of finding that new path, the student can draw the conclusion that the loss wasn’t worth grieving. But when unresolved grief is suppressed, it can make it difficult for such students to move forward. College is stressful enough without also having to rewrite your life’s career path. But therapy can allow students to process the emotions surrounding the loss of their original career expectations, begin to heal the pain of that loss, and start writing their new career story.
Finally, let’s consider losses that alter a person’s lifestyle. These kinds of losses are often physical in nature, having to do with significant illness or other changes to the body or mind. For example, let’s say a person’s spouse develops early-onset dementia. Shifts must be made not only in the couple’s daily lifestyle, but in their expectations about the long-term. What happens to their plans of traveling abroad after they reach retirement age? Or to all those hopes and dreams they had about being grandparents together? There might also be regrets about not having gone after those hopes and dreams earlier. Or guilt about acknowledging the sadness and unfairness of the curveball life’s just thrown them – after all, the last thing the wife wants to do is blame her husband for getting sick. But it’s crucial that she give herself permission to mourn the loss of her old reality, as well as the loss of what might have been. If she doesn’t, it could complicate the grief she experiences when she faces the impending loss that will eventually come with the progression of her husband’s disease. Talking with a trusted professional in counseling can ensure that all the facets of loss, both traditional and nontraditional, are acknowledged and honored. And difficult though it is, doing the work of grief goes a long way in ensuring that it doesn’t shift into something more.
If you have experienced or are currently experiencing this kind of loss, and are struggling with the emotions associated with your grief, contact Brentwood Counseling Associates and connect with one of our experienced therapists.