Ask Golden Willow

Grieving the living through multiple losses


This column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and possibly as a future article for others. Please list a first name that grants permission for printing.

Dear Ted,

I greatly enjoy your "Ask Golden Willow" column and was wondering if you have any advice for those of us who are grieving the living. I have a wonderful older friend who for decades was an incredibly smart, easy-going professional photographer. As Alzheimer's took over, he became violent and erratic. Now he's in a care home: mute and wheelchair-bound, and he doesn't recognize me or his family. When I visit him, there's this person who has my friend's name and body, but otherwise, my friend no longer exists. I feel sad and guilty for missing a friend who's still living.

It seems to me that in some ways, dealing with a bodily death is easier: mind, body and spirit are gone; there are services and a burial, and there's a finality to the situation. Right now, my friend's body is still among the living, but everything else is gone. I tear up every time I think about him or visit him, yet I feel guilty for grieving the loss of my friend because he's still alive.

Any thoughts on this subject would be appreciated and thank you. — Tears

Dear Tears,

Thank you for your question and comments. I can feel your sadness and some level of pain as there is no closure over who your friend used to be and who he is now.

Within chronic illnesses, many deaths occur. They may come after the diagnosis, or perhaps symptoms developed before the diagnosis depending on the disease and how it progresses through different stages. The patient is dealing with chronic loss, of course, but their friends and family also go through a level of chronic loss and possibly trauma as they witness this process.

I have never been one to believe one loss is more difficult than another, and I have seen amazing relationships grow from a prolonged illness, excruciating pain and anguish. This happens as a slow marathon rather than a sprint.

As someone who has experienced both sudden death, chronic illness and death that wasn't sudden, I am able to say that each experience is different, and each has its own emotional turbulence that has no words.

I am so grateful for having the privilege to walk with my first wife through her cancer for two years until her death. I would be lying if I didn't say it was excruciating and painful most days, yet in the midst of that excruciating and painful time, gifts came to the partnership, working together, and connecting as a team.Through individual and collective grieving, we were able to walk through hell until the cancer took her body. I would not wish this process on anybody, and with each physical, mental, emotional and spiritual change, there was another death.

Please don't get me wrong: grieving the living is not an easy process and to recognize there are many "deaths" within the illness will help you transition with each difficult step along the way.

Thank you for the question. I wish you well. Until next week, take care.

Direct any questions to Ted Wiard, LPCC, CGC, Founder of Golden Willow Retreat at (575) 776-2024 or