Symbolic losses are psychosocial in nature—related to the psychological aspects of a person’s social interactions. (Rando 12)
Examples include divorce or social death, such as the loss of the essence of a loved one due to dementia, Alzheimer's, or brain damage--even divorce. But, because the person is not physically dead, the social support for such loss is often absent as there is no mourning, no funeral, no rituals that transport people to the next stage of life and offer social support.
In such cases as those stated above there are different ways in which loved ones react to these social deaths. Some relatives who are caregivers refuse to believe that the older or injured loved one will never recognize them--this is clearly a negative strategy. Others react by wishing to avoid contact with the family member who no longer recognizes anyone, or they secretly hope the person will have to be put into a nursing home or will pass away because seeing one who was vital and intelligent, personable, humorous, etc. reduced to such a state is very disturbing to those who have loved/known this debilitated person.
In order to deal in a positive manner with symbolic losses, one positive strategy involves the avoidance of isolation. It is important for individuals to belong to a support group and friends. Keeping a social life for oneself with friends who provide love is important and having others who have been through similar experiences is both comforting and helpful as these others may have found ways of dealing that can be very beneficial to the individual suffering this symbolic loss. Another positive strategy involves getting others to assist in the care of the debilitated loved one so that the primary caregiver has time for him/herself. In this way, resentment or negative feelings are less likely to be generated.
Indeed, it is important to remember the famous line of John Donne, "No man is an island unto himself." The physical, psychological, and spiritual aid of others helps all people to better deal with their tribulations and losses.
Rando, Therese A. How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.