Nearly every day I meet with someone who is disappointed that some realistic life expectation failed to be fulfilled as imagined. They thought they would be married by now, but they’re not. They hoped to conceive a child, but they haven’t. They planned on owning their own business, but events beyond their control put an end to that dream. They expected to be promoted, but they weren’t. They thought their job would take them to retirement, but it didn’t. Somehow the very things they hoped, planned and worked toward for years never materialized.
Go to any Hallmark store and you’ll see cards for all kinds of losses—the passing of a loved one, the death of a pet, the loss of good health and even divorce. Friends send cards of condolence when a family member passes. They bring meals or clean our house when we experience a health crisis. They may even raise funds if a crisis in our lives brings about a financial emergency. There are no rituals or traditions of comfort, however, for things we thought would happen, but don’t. Even so, the feelings of loss can be deep and devastating.
According to Schlossberg and Robinson(1996), these “non-events,” rarely receive the recognition and acknowledgement such experiences deserve. When we go through them, we feel isolated and alone. Our friends and family may not even appreciate what has happened. Even if they do, they often don’t know how to help or what to do. Perhaps we don’t either.
Most non-events are related to a timeline of sorts. Those associated with a particular point in time, e.g., failing to be admitted to the college of your choice or make the cut for a team, are easier to recognize. They happen and you adjust, deciding what you’ll do to move on.
Many non-events, however, are related to what we thought would occur by this point in our lives, i.e., where we thought we would be by now. There still may be a small particle of hope within us things will change, but mostly we are beginning to recognize it’s unlikely. Recognizing and acknowledging the impact of non-events can help a great deal inmoving forward. Strong feelings are frequently associated with them. We do ourselves (and others) a favor when we admit to the anger, anxiety, depression, grief and/or envy we may be suffering.
My Non-Event and Yours
Although almost every adult can connect with the concept of a non-event, the feelings associated with a specific experience are not universal. What seems like a non-event to one person may not be defined that way by another. For instance, the woman who gives up a career she enjoys to nurture her children may be bitterly disappointed when they fail to succeed, as she believed her sacrifice would make possible. Not every loyal son who stays behind to help with the family business comes to the same happy conclusion experienced by George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. If we want to be sensitive to the non-events in the lives of those we love, it is important to remember that what might be troubling me might not be troubling you.
Moving Forward, Moving On
At some point in our lives, almost all of us will experience one or more non-events. Those who manage best realize what is happening to them, honor their feelings associated with the non-event, and find a way to move forward. Talking to a trusted friend or two may help. A mental health professional may also be a good choice. No matter what you decide, the healthiest thing to do is honor a non-event loss by talking about it with someone. It could make the difference between staying stuck and moving forward.
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the founder and Director of Good Dads. She is also a clinical psychologist in private practice and can be reached for comment at Jennifer@gooddads.com.