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How We Grieve the Loss of Those Who Are Still Here

Memory and rumination open the wounds again and again.

Key points

  • Grieving the dead and grieving the living are similar, but have a different genesis and outcome.
  • Memory and rumination are the knives opening the wounds of our grief over and over.
  • Present-disappearing is the loss of someone who is still physically present.

When we think of loss, and its attendant grief, we most often think of death. What we typically don’t think about is disappearing, and its similarly attendant grief. The difference between the two is that while death provides an ostensibly clear and definitive ending, disappearing leaves us lingering, walking the halls of memory and rumination.

There is a sense of permanence to death—an irrevocable finality that once we come to terms with, we can somewhat settle into, even if we are not quite ready, or willing, to accept it. With disappearing, there is more of a sense of a not-quite-finality, often leaving us grasping and, sometimes, even clinging. Memory and rumination are the knives opening our wounds, over and over again.

Ghosting vs. Disappearing

Most of us are familiar with ghosting, a phenomenon that began online and has gradually entered into the larger cultural context. Ghosting is a sort of disappearing lite, as there is no real relationship from which to disappear, yet it still leaves behind the sense of something lost, or maybe not yet found.

More poignant is when a friend, lover, partner, or spouse deliberately disappears, at the sufferance of something we may perceive as within their control. A person may purposefully remove themselves from a relationship with no cause or preamble, leaving the person disappeared upon to wonder what prompted the other’s choice.

In either case, the person is still available somewhere, out there, but has made themselves inaccessible, or, at the very least, pointedly unavailable. While this doesn’t necessarily amplify the loss, it certainly lends it gravity—and anxiety. Will I see them at the grocery, or run into them at the gym? Are they still going to the places we used to frequent together? Should I try to mend fences, get answers, or just cut my losses? This is where the knives of memory and rumination begin to tear at our wounds—but not so much, however, when a person disappears, yet remains physically present.

Ghosting and deliberate disappearing build in a certain physical, and, by association, social and emotional distance. Even more distressing, and, in some ways, most heartbreaking, is when the person who disappears remains physically present. We might think about this as present-disappearing.


Very often, present-disappearing happens within the context of physical or mental illness. The person disappearing remains physically present, but demonstrates a less and less tangible connection to those around them, like diminished communication, declining desire to engage in once enjoyable, cooperative activities, or other, more overwhelming, expressions of disengagement. This isn’t to be confused with situational depression or anhedonia, although it may appear as such. It’s more a loss of aliveness impacting not only the person themself but, more poignantly, those in their immediate social orbit.

When present-disappearing is informed by physical illness, like dementia, ALS, stroke, or more recently long COVID, there is a certain built-in lack of control for us. If a partner or spouse has a stroke or is struggling with long COVID, there isn’t much we can do except stand away—not step away—and accept the role of steward or caretaker foisted upon us as graciously as we are able.

Even more distressing is the disappearing that is an outgrowth of mental illness, however, that may manifest itself—anxiety, depression, traumatic stress, substance abuse, and so on. The lack of control we feel can be overwhelming, which can, in turn, fuel a slide from interdependence into a type of dependence.

A healthy self, within the context of a (relatively) healthy relationship, can usually differentiate between function and dysfunction—a sense of personal control versus not. Even the healthiest of selves, drawn into a spiral of dysfunction, is hard-pressed to maintain a sense of groundedness and positivity.

In either case, faced with disappearing, we are left bereft. Our friend, lover, partner, spouse and sometimes even family member is gone while sitting right in front of us. The sense of connection, which is the bedrock of a relationship, slips from our grasp, and, try as we might, we can find no purchase, nowhere to hold on. We are left adrift in every bit the same sense—and, in some ways even more profoundly—as the person to whom we were once connected. We are left grieving a loss that is not fully a loss, only a ragged and seemingly irretrievable rent in the soul of a once solid and dependable relationship.

Like death, grieving someone whose presence is gone, while they remain, enfolds a certain finality. We can do nothing about dementia, ALS, stroke, long COVID, and other conditions. We can only meet the challenge of continuing to love in the face of diminishing odds. Nor can we—or should we, in the best of all possible mentally healthy worlds—affect the circumstances of a relationship where our significant other has withdrawn—there’s that fine line between interdependence and mutual dependence, begging the slippery slope of function and dysfunction.

Ghosting and intentional disappearing are one thing. Present-disappearing, when borne upon the wings of something beyond anyone’s control, like physical illness or a change in capacity, and where we are not collateral damage, is something else. Present-disappearing, in the face of mental illness, where we are not collateral damage, but an active, if unwilling, participant, is something else altogether.

This is a grief doubled down. We are grieving not only for the person and the loss of love and connection outside ourselves but also the loss inside ourselves—an inescapable unbinding of the heart from which we cannot escape, any more than we can escape the inevitability of our own death.

© 2023 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved.

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