In most cases, the reasons you grieve some loss are fairly straightforward. If it is a loved one, you may miss the way you loved them and/or the way they loved you. If it is a job that you enjoyed, and were fortunate enough to earn a decent living from, you will miss it, the money as well as the people you worked with (of course, you may keep seeing them outside of work but it will not be in the same environment, which is itself, a loss). However, what (or who) you often think you are pining for is not the actual case upon closer inspection.

I refer to the pain of such losses as “symbolic grief”. That is, you are grieving for someone/something that was standing in the place of someone/something you really wanted. I often see this in relationships of all kinds – you think you’re missing the person but you are actually missing the idea of the person. Unless death is the reason for her/his absence in your life, you or s/he has made a decision to end it. If it had to end in such a way, it wasn’t what you thought it was to begin with (or it changed along the way) – therefore, you are actually grieving for an idea, a fantasy or the desire for a certain kind of life or future with this individual (or this situation) that was (or is now) not possible.

Some common examples:

  • A man and woman, both in their thirties and single (never married), want desperately to have children. They connect via this desire only and do not pay close attention to their differences which are exacerbated when they have kids. If they divorce, it will be because what they wanted wasn’t there to begin with. If they stay together for the sake of the kids, they will silently (and sometimes not so silently), grieve for the partner that they did not have from the beginning of their relationship.
  • A young man associates with people he grew up with because they understand his background. For a long time, he thought they liked and respected him as he did them. As he matures and gets to know each of them as individuals, he finds that he does not have that much in common with them – he never did. They are narrow-minded and not interested in helping anyone other than themselves and their families. He wants to make a difference in the world. When he removes himself from these circles he feels sad not because he misses them – he grieves for the years of wasted time spent with people that he did not, fundamentally, like. He is sad about the fact that he never had like-minded and like-hearted people in his life, ever.
  • A very ambitious woman wants to make it to the top of the corporate ladder. She grew up in poverty, watching both of her parents work very hard for very little in return. She wanted to succeed socially and financially. When she finally “makes it”, it does not take long for her to realize that this is not the life for her: the long hours, the wheeling and dealing, and, alienating her friends and family. When she finally left her career, she was deeply depressed for many months. It wasn’t just about the sadness at everything and everyone she had given up to succeed, it was also the lack of substance in that kind of existence, for it was after all, only an existence and not a full life – her symbolic loss: a meaningful life.

So, the next time some relationship or situation comes to a close in your life, reflect on all the losses involved with such an ending. Symbolic losses are not easy to detect at first – inner reflection, the passage of time, or, events that bring up the past, will usually bring this type of grief to the surface.