Ambiguous Loss – how do you work with it?

There are many losses in life that are frequently overlooked as losses.

One is having a child with an intellectual disability. The loss of anticipated outcomes for that child is frequently unnoticed or unacknowledged. The same applies if someone you love suffers from an acquired brain injury, or a much loved parent gets dementia. In those situations you are grieving the loss of the person while they are still there.

This is an ambiguous loss.

Another ambiguous loss is when a loved one goes missing. You don’t know where they are or, in some cases, if they are alive. You may know your loved one is dead but no body has been found. You may wonder if they are alive or whether you should grieve their death. Again the loss is ambiguous.

When someone you love is a drug addict, or suffers from a severe mental illness, you can also experience ambiguous loss.

Ambiguous loss is often described as occurring when the person is physically present but psychologically absent, or physically absent but psychologically present.

The trouble with ambiguous loss is that people put their lives on hold as a result of the loss. If your parent with dementia dies, then you have a funeral and can say goodbye. But if the body of your parent is still there, but the personality that made them who they were is gone then you have suffered a loss of that parent. You can’t grieve them, because they are still there, but you suffer grief because they are not your parent anymore.

The same thing happens when someone you love is missing. They are not there, but you don’t know what has happened to them. They may eventually re-enter your life. You don’t know. So you can’t mourn.

This situation makes ambiguous loss traumatic. There is no resolution of this loss, no way to end it. If someone dies you have a funeral and you learn to move forward. With ambiguous loss there is no moving forward. That person is always in your life, either physically in the case of the parent with dementia, or psychologically in the case of the missing person.

Grief never stops when it is ambiguous. The torture of the person’s condition goes on day after day. You have lost the person you know but they are still there. Or the person you know is lost but still there in your mind because you don’t know where they are.

Research on the experiences of people whose loved one is physically present, but psychologically absent report feeling stressed, that life is chaotic and very confused. They feel sad, angry, frightened and can experience guilt and feelings of powerlessness. They are also likely to report feeling anxious about the future. Not surprisingly they will also report feeling physically depleted. Many report feeling that they are in a living nightmare that doesn’t stop. They reach out to friends for support. Initially that support is present, but over time friends drift away as they tire of providing support for an ongoing crisis that never ends. This results in the person often feeling unsupported and isolated.

Unfortunately, that person is very likely to be diagnosed as depressed, rather than suffering an ambiguous loss.

When someone is physically absent but psychologically present it is difficult for families to move on. Even when the evidence suggests the person is dead, without a body there is still a possibility they are alive. It is also difficult in that there are many unanswered questions about how the person has died. There is no sense of being able to make sense of a death where the circumstances surrounding the death and manner of death are never answered.

Part of the process of Grief is making meaning in the loved one’s death. How do you do that when you don’t know if they are dead? And if it is likely they died, you don’t know what happened. Eventually the grieving family members come to the conclusion their loved one is dead and they will never see their body. Then they have to construct their own meaning and truth around the death. The trouble with ambiguity is that a person’s grief process and cognition become frozen by the uncertainty and the processes that are needed to construct this meaning are blocked.

It is worth noting that this type of ambiguous loss occurs when a loved one has been kidnapped, or when people have been involved in a traumatic war or genocide event such as has happened in Syria, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Holocaust. It also happens when a loved one dies overseas and the body is never returned home. This was particularly common after the World Wars when the loved one was buried overseas, or was listed as missing. Another cause of ambiguous loss is where a family member is caught up in a religious cult, or caught up in a coercive control relationship where contact with the family is lost.

It is important to remember that your feelings are valid. You are grieving. Grief is normal. For you, grieving an ambiguous loss is more difficult than a more usual type of loss. There is no certainty, whether the one you love is missing or whether they are dying day by day from dementia. There is no death certificate, no funeral or memorial service. There is often nothing tangible to grieve. What you have lost and continue to lose every day is something other people cannot see.

Did you know that research has shown people suffering ambiguous loss feel incompetent, guilty and uncertain? That their sense of certainty in this world and their ability to cope with it is shattered. That it is common to feel helpless and confused?

One of the hardest, but most important tasks, of ambiguous loss is to work to change what you can and accept what you cannot. One of the hardest things to do is learn to be at peace with not knowing all the answers.

It is hard to deal with ambiguous loss on your own. This is where a grief trained counsellor is helpful.

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your ambiguous grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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