At some point in life, most people will deal with loss and grief. While natural, people experience grief differently, and not all grief is created equal. Ambiguous loss is one of those cases. This type of loss presents ambiguity that complicates the grief process and often leaves loved ones confused, angry, and overwhelmed. Read on to learn what ambiguous loss is and how to heal from it.
What is Ambiguous Loss?
Pauline Boss, PhD coined the term ambiguous loss to define a kind of loss that lacks closure or complete information. It can be more difficult to process than regular grief as the situation is more complicated than a distinct life or death differentiation.
There are two different types of ambiguous loss. Type-one is explained as a person being physically absent but psychologically present. This can represent a variety of situations. For example, this might occur for people who have had miscarriages, experienced a child being kidnapped, the aftermath of a divorce, people who have immigrated, or people who have been ghosted by a partner. Type-one ambiguous grief might leave the person questioning where the person is now and seeking answers they most likely won’t be able to find.
Type-two ambiguous loss describes when a person is physically present but psychologically absent. This might happen when a person experiences a traumatic event, declines in their mental health, addiction, or some type of degenerative disease so much so that their personality no longer matches who they “used to be.” So while their physical body is still present, the friends and family members are still left to cope with the loss of a loved one.
Both experiences of ambiguous loss leave the loved ones without the emotional closure they may desire. This can make the typical stages of grief difficult and confusing.
The Complexities of Ambiguous Loss
There is a lot of uncertainty around ambiguous loss which may complicate and prolong the grieving process for loved ones. The complexities of ambiguous loss often stem from a person searching for answers when emotional closure is unlikely. This search for answers may delay the grieving process and result in unresolved or frozen grief. This type of grief is intense, prolonged, can worsen overtime, and can impact a person’s ability to function in day to day life.
One reason frozen grief may occur is because ambiguous loss may cause the grieving person to go through periods of hope where they believe the person is coming back, followed by feelings of despair. They may wish to begin the healing process, but then worry that by doing so, they are giving up hope. This cycle of hope and despair can cause guilt and delays in grieving.
A common symptom of ambiguous loss is anger towards the person or situation and subsequent guilt for being angry with the lost person. This “rollercoaster” of emotions often feels conflicting and exhausting which may cause the person additional anxiety around the situation.
People experiencing ambiguous loss may feel a lack of control, justice, and certainty which can shatter their perception of what the world “should be.” This complicates the grieving process as they are left to juggle their grief as well as their new understanding of the world.
Healing from Ambiguous Loss
Healing from any loss takes time and compassion with oneself. In the case of ambiguous loss, it can feel difficult to move on when there are still so many unknowns. Dr. Boss encourages people experiencing ambiguous loss to first name what it is that they’re experiencing. Doing so allows the person to feel whatever emotions they have without trying to control them. After this, you might consider taking some of the following steps to support you in your healing process.
Seek Support from Others
Whether you turn to trusted friends, family members, a support group, or seek help from a licensed therapist, having someone listen to you, validate your feelings, and support you is instrumental in working through ambiguous loss.
It is okay to feel whatever feelings you have. The situation is complex; there is no right way to feel about it, and there’s no such thing as feeling “too much” about it.
It can feel overwhelming to have two conflicting truths exist at the same time. Conflicted feelings can be a very normal experience for those who are dealing with ambiguous loss. Having people listen to you talk about this experience and validate what you are going through can be a helpful way of accepting two truths.
Once it feels okay for you, you are allowed to grieve the person or situation that is lost while celebrating what remains.
Take Care of Yourself
Try to participate in activities that you enjoy and take care of your basic needs. Eat nutritious meals, exercise, drink water, and get plenty of sleep. You may try to let go of what you cannot control through meditation, prayer, mindfulness, or any activities that help bring you to acceptance. When you feel ready, try to transition back into activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
Discover New Hope
You might discover new hope by leaning into spirituality, discovering things you can control, finding meaning in the situation, and redefining justice. Even if you can’t find meaning in the situation itself, can you find activities that bring you peace and acceptance?
Ambiguous loss is complex and often accompanied with feelings of being overwhelmed, confused and angry. The grieving process can be messy and leave loved ones with little to no emotional closure. If you are ready to work with a licensed therapist, you can schedule a free 30 minute consultation to help you begin to work through the healing process at your own pace.