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Missing what you never had

Grief is all around, once we have a reason to start looking for it. Usually, that reason is a loss of our own, when we seek to know that we are not alone. For me, it is also my preoccupation with learning all I can about the various forms of loss and the various ways we respond. The losses of spouse, parent or child are thought to be our most acute, but there is more to grief than the expected, and its complications can confuse.

We also grieve for losses of jobs, for friends who move away, for our children when they graduate and move on, all tangible and easy to place on a timeline. Each one has layers – with the loss of a job, we lose not only income, daily schedule, friendships, and sometimes even a beloved tribe of co-workers, we also lose the place where we belong everyday. Grieving is never simple, and it takes times for us to notice the layers.

Another kind of grief is rarely examined – grief for what we never had. As the child of a father who I can’t remember, because he died in an accident before I was two years old, I am familiar with the diffuse longing that comes with absence.

I have compared my experience with that of close friends who also lost their fathers in childhood (that’s where I found my tribe). Among them, they had dads who came home every night, who teased them, took them out for ice cream, who gave stern talks about less than stellar report cards, who were often crabby, who drank too much. Who one day never came home again.

While my friends experienced a life before and after that day, I experienced a never-was, a mysterious connection where I could never tell quite what I was missing. I know now that my layers were different than theirs - I missed being like other kids, having siblings, having memories, while they missed an actual particular person. It hurt me less in one way because I didn’t know what I missed, but more in that my hopes, my preferred life, could not take place.

If you grieve an absence, you may feel some of the same. If you hoped to have a child but do not, if you hoped for a certain career but could not achieve it, if you looked for your birth mother and found that she had died (or did not wish to see you), if you hoped to find a loving life partner and haven’t, if you dreamed other dreams that you could not make come true, you are left with longing in the face of absence.

Because we are resilient, we find our ways to cope. We recognize that we want to turn our longing into action. We cherish our friends’ children, we volunteer to help others, we become foster parents or child advocates, we step forward when a friend has a loss, we find our tribes. We don’t have what we wanted, but we do have something different. We become wiser.

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