How Do You Mourn Someone Who’s Still Alive?

The last time I saw my mother happy and healthy was a little over a year ago. Actually, to call her healthy is a bit of a misstatement — she’d recently undergone surgery to clear out a carotid artery and had a host of other health issues — but she was the happiest and healthiest I’d seen her in a long time.

It was Thanksgiving, and she was sober. It wasn’t the real, spiritual kind of sober where one has a come to Jesus moment and starts attending AA meetings. But it wasn’t a grin and bear it, white knuckling sobriety either. It was the kind of brief and easy sobriety I imagine can only occur after one has a series of health scares. The kind of sobriety where you’re temporarily so sick of being sick that you don’t even want a drink. At least, that’s how it seemed from my perspective.

To me, it didn’t matter much though. Whatever the cause, I was grateful for her sobriety. I was grateful because it was the time of year to be grateful. I was grateful because, for at least one day, I had my regular mom — my real mom — not the imposter mom, the one possessed by her addiction.

Because of her addiction, I often find it useful to think of her as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As in the old story, Dr. Jekyll is her at baseline — her “good self” while Mr. Hyde is the version of her in active addiction — the one who makes poor, dangerous, and often hurtful decisions.

That Thanksgiving, I had my Jekyll mom. My Hyde mother, for once, was nowhere to be found. Sadly, I’d gotten so used to seeing the Hyde version of her, I wasn’t even sure if Jekyll existed anymore.

But here she was, clear-eyed and steady. Her speech, in its Long Island vernacular, was enunciated — not slurred. Her face was animated and not droopy and numb as it gets when she’s drinking. And although she walks with a slight limp from a car accident a few years ago that broke her ankle, there was no drunken stumble in her step.

This was my husband’s and my first time hosting Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a particularly large gathering — 9 of us in total — but it was a nice one. A calm one. My mother, in all her sober exuberance, regaled the table with tales of her youth and mine.

She was her “normal,” caring self, her Jekyll self. Her Jekyll self is the one who’d always make sure us kids had eaten breakfast before school. The one who’d pick up part-time jobs to make sure we’d have a good Christmas. The one who’d come to school concerts, even though I’m sure they weren’t nearly as entertaining as my childhood mind imagined they were. She was the who’d console me and raise hell with school administration when I’d been bullied at school. The one who didn’t hesitate to remind me how proud she was of even my smallest accomplishments.

On this Thanksgiving night, my Jekyll mother took charge of the cleaning. My heart swelled with appreciation as I watched her small frame hover over the kitchen sink, her delicate hands circling each dish with soap and water.

With all her recent health issues, I knew this physically wasn’t easy for her, and yet she was doing it anyway because she didn’t want me to bear the burden of a filthy kitchen later that night. I was filled with gratitude.

The next day, my brother, who lives several states away, called to wish me a happy Thanksgiving and to see how everything went. We talked about mom and he agreed she sounded as good as she had in years.

And then he said what I knew we were both thinking: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

And I did. I savored the good moments with my Jekyll mother, knowing the Hyde version was likely around the corner. And it was.

Because that’s what life is like with an addict. There are good moments, but they’re often punctuated by periods of chaos, manipulation, and confusion. I knew the Hyde version of my mother would likely be back. Because she comes back often these days.

And she’s the antithesis of the one I saw on Thanksgiving. The Hyde version of my mother is the one who was too drunk to come to my wedding. She’s the one who often drove my siblings and I around as kids while her blood alcohol content was well past the legal limit. She’s the one who’s been arrested several times for DUI and being a public nuisance. She’s the one I’ve learned to protect myself from.

I often see her relapses as storms I need to prepare for. I’ve learned how to hunker down. To put up barriers and board up my proverbial windows when necessary. Each time, I take a deep breath and hope for the best while I wait for the sun to come back out.

And eventually, the sun comes out briefly. But in recent years, this happens less and less often. The storms last longer and longer.

Optimistic people will tell me there’s always hope she’ll get better. And I suppose that’s true. But as much as I hope and pray my mother will get and stay sober for the rest of her life, I know this isn’t a likely outcome. She’s been an alcoholic since before I was born. And because alcoholism is a progressive disease, it often gets worse. For every story you hear of lifelong recovery, there are many others of addicts succumbing to their addictions.

So while I have hope that my mother will get and stay clean, I don’t have false hope. I don’t have expectations of that happening.

So How do I Process All This?

To be honest, I struggle with it a lot. I’m sure I will for many years to come. It often feels like a heavy, unresolvable darkness on my psyche.

I’ve gone to therapy and Al-Anon and I’ve figured out how to set boundaries and take care of myself. These things all help to some extent.

But there’s a pain that endures. I recently had the disturbing realization that it often feels like I’m mourning her as if she were dead. Which is a little strange, given she’s still very much alive.

But I think it makes sense. I’m mourning the loss of her — the real her — to this disease. I didn’t realize until recently though, that what I’m experiencing actually is a type of grieving. And it has a name. It’s called “unconventional” or “ambiguous grief.”

Naming My Grief has Been a Big Help

I came across the concept of ambiguous grief when I was reading this article. Ambiguous grief often happens when a loved one is physically there, but psychologically gone for one reason or another. It’s a type of grief that can occur when a loved one has an addiction, dementia, injury or mental illness.

The aforementioned article recounts the story of a woman whose husband had a traumatic brain injury and wasn’t the same afterwards. She had to mourn the loss of who he used to be, and learned how to have a relationship with the new him.

My situation is vastly different from hers, but the problem is fundamentally the same. We’re both mourning people who are still alive. We’re both undergoing a grieving process that has no closure (unlike a traditional death).

When I heard about this concept, I had an “aha” moment (and actually felt a lot of relief). I finally have a word for the cocktail of sadness, anger, confusion and yearning I feel when it comes to my mother. It feels like all this pain I’ve been experiencing has legitimacy. And it’s normal, and I’m not a weirdo for feeling it.

What else helps?

I don’t think there’s a way to eliminate grief, but a few things I’ve been working on are the following:

Knowing that the present doesn’t cancel out the past. I have a lot of good memories with my mother, and regardless of what’s happening now or what happens in the future, these are mine to keep. No one can take them away. Her disease can’t take them away.

Accepting my grief for what it is. It’s ok to feel how I feel. In fact, it’s normal. Loving an addict is hard as hell. Especially when that person is your parent, the person you’re supposed to look to for guidance.

Taking things day by day. In little moments throughout the day, I take care of myself. I try to stay in the moment. I don’t try to predict how things will unfold or what my mother will or won’t do. I remind myself that I’m safe and ok. I remember that my mother is ultimately responsible for her own health. There’s only so much I have control over. I set boundaries when I need to.


We can’t always predict how our relationships with others will morph and change over time. Sometimes people become something we don’t recognize — whether through addiction, mental illness, disease, injury or something else.

This can be confusing and infuriating and scary and sad. And I don’t have all the answers for dealing with this situation.

But I do know that I feel best when I approach the situation with as much compassion as possible, while still taking care of myself. I do know that it’s ok to have a million mixed emotions when someone isn’t being his or herself, or when someone abruptly changes for whatever reason.

The truth is, love is hard, even in the best of circumstances. But we can learn that our feelings are normal and okay. We can learn to adapt to whatever our relationships morph into, even if the relationship has to cease entirely. We can learn to be grateful for the good memories and the value these relationships provide.

Because even if it doesn’t seem like it, there is value, if only in the learning.

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