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Treating the Grief of Dashed Life Expectations

Listen to this podcast on how to help clients stop grieving for a life they could have had

We can help our clients overcome the feeling of loss caused by life's unexpected turns

“I didn’t sign up for this!”

I heard someone say this the other day, alluding to a life situation they were not expecting.

But where do we “sign up” for things?

Expectations are forged within the creative cognitive workshop of the imagination. Misuse of the imagination can make us miserable, and learning to use it differently – and sometimes suspend its use – is a massive boon to mental health.

Expectation and disappointment track together.

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We expect things to be a certain way, and we either see what we want to see (a little confirmation bias goes a long way) or we feel shattered when life doesn’t produce what we’ve led ourselves to believe it should.

But what about when life itself doesn’t turn out the way we imagined?

Disappointment and surprise can only happen when we were expecting something else. People who have developed the capacity to take life as it comes and relax with ambiguity tend to be less prone to the grief of dashed expectations.

People with sharp and rigid expectations as to how people, they, and life in general should be get hurt the most. When we relax and soften expectations we can, I think, become better able to:

  • see opportunities where we didn’t before
  • see what is, not what should be, and so gain in our understanding of life
  • feel happier because we are focused not so much on what is lacking but rather on what we have.

It seems strange to use the term grief when talking about dashed expectations. But certainly we can and do grieve for the life we’d imagined, and therefore expected, when it doesn’t transpire. We can grieve for the person we imagined (and so assumed) someone to be when they turn out most definitely not to be who we felt they should be.

People can even grieve for the life they don’t have because it can seem so different to the life they had assumed would be theirs.

This week’s Clear Thinking topic comes from a great question we had on a Q&A call. It concerns a topic that I think is more central to human emotional suffering than is often recognized: the grief of dashed expectations.

You can read the transcript below or listen to my answer at the end of the article. I hope you find this useful.

Donna’s question

Hello! What are your thoughts on depression and grief?

I am particularly interested in grief not from the loss of a loved one, but from the loss of a life you thought you would have that is ongoing. For example, a child born with severe handicaps requiring lifelong care, or a couple who had planned a lively retirement and out of illness/accident one must become a full-time carer for the other. Really enjoying the course!

Thank you,


Listen to Mark’s answer or read below

Hear the answer by clicking the play button below:

Or click here to download the clip to play later (you may need to right-click and select ‘Save As…’)

Hi Donna. I’ll just say a bit about grieving for a person, then speak more specifically about what you’re talking about here.

Grieving the death of a loved one is of course entirely natural and not pathological in any way. There are supposedly stages people go through of grieving, such as shock, disbelief and denial, sadness and depression, anger and guilt, and finally acceptance.

The many faces of grief

I’ve noticed, though, that people don’t have to experience grief in these ways, or in any particular order. I’ve even noticed that people who have had much grief in their life may even get better at grieving, and go through the process quicker, which is quite a strange thought because we don’t usually think of the grieving process as a skill in which we can improve.

So… no one has to experience all of a particular set of emotions in any set order. People aren’t ‘bound’ to be in denial or in any of the common features of grief.

The other thing that can block the grief process is post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve seen it where the client is stuck at the stage of seeing the loved one die. They may have flashbacks to that time. So helping lift any PTSD around the death will then free the person to grieve and eventually adjust to life without this person and start to move on.

How much grief is too much?

Grief should only become a concern if it doesn’t start to diminish after some months and the grief-stricken person starts to believe that they cannot possibly have any meaningful existence without their deceased loved one. Going into the imagination at this time, and projecting into a future and colouring it meaningless in the mind without the loved one, is a danger.

So grief is natural, but how long does it last and at what intensity? That’s a key question.

We need to look at our grieving client’s basic emotional needs – were they solely met through the person who has died?

Grief tends to be worse if the person doesn’t have a strong and supportive social network around them, or meaningful work to do. We may need to help the grieving person gradually meet their needs again in a wider way in their life. And also help them contextualize their grieving, or even organize their grieving.

The very real grief of dashed expectations

Now, of course, any way of life that we have strongly imagined and started to assume would be our ideal or at least expected way of life, but then it doesn’t pan out like that, can cause a kind of grieving for those dashed expectations… the thought behind the prevailing feeling is, This isn’t how my life was supposed to turn out! This isn’t how I imagined things would be.

When I was a kid I expected adult life to be a cross between a James Bond film and a Star Wars movie, and needless to say I’ve had to adjust my expectations somewhat.

If we develop really narrow expectations as to what people, things, experiences and everything should be like, then we will live lives of constant oscillation between surprise and disappointment.

Narrow expectations of life can invite surprise and disappointment Click to Tweet

I think when we learn to soften our expectations we become better able to perceive reality as it is… not what our imagination has constructed it should be like.

We don’t have to be continually shocked or outraged or bitterly disappointed unless we are being led around by the nose of our own imaginings, which have been shaped by our own minds and often by the imaginings of those around us… and even society as a whole.

The aspirational ‘good life’ may not be your construct, but one built for you by advertisers and other producers of mass media.

Rolling with the punches…

When a bird flies thousands of miles it catches air currents in its wings. It hasn’t formed exact ideas or imaginings as to the strength and location of those air currents, it just exists in that moment and adjusts to what is… and how that is ever changing.

If a child is born with special needs and needs extra care, or if a spouse or partner falls ill and declines and we now have the primary care of looking after them, or if we ourselves become sick or disabled or a valued relationship ends… then there will be a natural sense of loss, because we have lost something. We can remind clients it’s entirely natural to be upset or sad or even angry during the adjustment period.

And without wanting to sound too bleak… suffering – or at least some suffering – is an inevitable part of life, but within that suffering perhaps we can find something, whether it’s unexpected help from others, untapped strengths within ourselves, or a new appreciation of life itself. There are sometimes compensations in what at first appears a new way of living which might seem entirely bleak.

I’m not suggesting we glibly say that to a client, or not so crassly, but I think we can remember the truth of that.

The future isn’t some promised land of perpetual love and money and health and happiness… it, like everything else in the abode we find ourselves in, contains ever-revolving circumstances and ever-changing patterns of fortune for all of us. Utopianism can be just as dangerous as expecting only bad things.

… and rising to the challenges

We seem to feel moments of true happiness not when we are continually getting what it is we thought we wanted, but when we solve problems. Having problems and working around them may be the key ingredients to a happier life, as long as the problems can be negotiated effectively.

When working with clients who are living a very different life to the one they expected to live, we might examine what they were expecting… to check out perhaps how realistic it was.

We then might talk to them about their primal basic emotional needs, and how they still need to meet those in as balanced a way as possible given the new circumstances they now need to adapt to… and also encourage their resolve that they can rise to the challenge of these.

Listen to the answer by clicking the play button below:

Or click here to download the clip to play later (you may need to right-click and select ‘Save As…’)

And you can read about How To Lift Depression Fast, my online home study course here and sign up to be notified when the course is open for booking.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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