Ambiguous Loss: What it Means Living With Unresolved Grief
When something comes to an end, we eagerly wait for the closure. It’s in our nature to see something meet a satisfying conclusion. When I have to end a book or a movie series on a cliffhanger, I feel oddly adrift and unsatisfied. Having a definite ending to the story allows my heart and mind to feel satisfied and well-fed. And yet, when it comes to grief and loss, there are times when we just can’t get the ending we desire and are left feeling lost.
Ambiguous grief or Ambiguous loss is what we can name this lost feeling that we experience and is often accompanied by grief.
Grief has many shapes and sizes; you can’t expect grief to show up in a definite form. Not having the loss we experience defined can make us feel disoriented. Ambiguous loss can be born from complex trauma and can make us feel like the loss is our fault. That’s not true, however.
A lot of things in life (and death) are unpredictable and just like that things are beyond our control and understanding. Living with unresolved grief and loss can be distressing on your mind and heart, so let’s see what ambiguous grief looks like and how you can cope with it.
What Does Ambiguous Grief Mean?
Ambiguous grief and loss is the unresolved grief that is born from complex trauma that you’ve experienced where the loss is without closure. This term was coined by psychotherapist Pauline Boss in the 70s who developed this theory of loss after her experience working as a family therapist.
It is believed that when we can label our loss as ambiguous, it can help us come to terms with said loss and give us a path to healing and coping.
It is also mentioned in Boss’ book, “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief,” that there are two types of ambiguous loss; Type I Ambiguous grief and Type II Ambiguous grief.
The Types of Ambiguous Grief
Type 1 ambiguous grief is when you’ve faced a physical loss but not a psychological one. One of the most common examples of this type of grief is when people go missing or leave without a body behind. Other common examples of type 1 ambiguous grief can include;
- Missing persons
- War or genocide
- Terrorist attacks
- Death by natural disasters, etc.
Type 2 ambiguous grief is when there is no psychological presence even if the physical body is present. One of the common examples of this type of ambiguous grief is when someone is cognitively dead or is emotionally not present. Other examples of type 2 ambiguous grief can include;
- Loss through miscarriage
- Having an emotionally unavailable parent/partner
- Losing contact with a loved one without closure
- Being raised in foster care
- Having a loved one with Alzheimer’s or related disorders
- Facing a loss by suicide or infant death
Ambiguous Grief Symptoms to Know
If you or someone you know are living with unresolved grief, then here are some of the common symptoms that can help you understand the loss as ambiguous grief;
- Having blocked cognition
- Unable to cope with the loss
- The stages of grief feel frozen
- Persistent sadness for unknown reasons
If these signs are relatable, then you can reach out to a counselor or a therapist who can recommend Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help process the complex trauma from which the grief is born and then re-install a positive belief to help cope with the trauma and its subsequent loss.
Another approach can be cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). These therapies can help deal with the trauma and also help you gain distance from the negative and persistent thoughts related to the loss.
Ambiguous Loss And Anticipatory Grief: Are They Same?
While they may feel similar, anticipatory grief is experienced before the loss comes to pass whereas ambiguous loss is just experiencing loss without getting a conclusion. Anticipatory grief is experienced by people who are terminally ill or have a loved one who is diagnosed with a terminal illness or are nearing death due to certain circumstances (say, old age).
In some circumstances, an ambiguous loss can overlap anticipatory grief and vice versa, but they are two different types of grief.
How to Cope With Ambiguous Grief?
To cope with ambiguous loss, you can try these ways;
1.Seek Clarity Through Creativity
We don’t often realize how well creative expression can work in our favor and help us heal. To cope with ambiguous grief, try seeking clarity through creative pursuits. Sing, dance, create art, garden, or write a poem – anything that can help you express your grief. Creativity can also help others know how you feel and allow you to find your way through the fog of loss.
2.Find Love to Replace Grief
Psychologists believe that grief is a price of love and vice versa. Keeping this in mind, you can allow love to replace your grief and loss. With time, the love you find will help give your grief a new meaning. Love can be used as a coping skill. So, find an object, a person, or even a pet that can help replace the grief in your heart.
Uncertainty is also a part of our life and it’s natural to feel uncertain and adrift in the face of loss. What we need to focus on here is the array of complicated emotions grief brings with it.
In the face of your ambiguous grief, many people choose to distract the feeling of loss by overworking, overuse of social media, food, and even excessive alcohol consumption. Instead of avoiding ambivalence, try accepting it as a part of your grief and loss.
4.Keep Looking Out for Hope
Hope is the light at the end of the long tunnel you find yourself facing in the wake of loss. Acknowledging hope can help you cope with your grief – ambiguous or not. What you need to do is set aside time to think about your loss. While it may feel counterproductive, doing this will allow you to look out for hope.
Ambiguous grief is the type of grief where there is no closure to the loss. Something born out of trauma can leave you feeling disoriented and senseless.
Even if your loss makes sense, what emotions it evokes might not make much sense to you and that’s OK. Just like you’ve learned to accept your emotions as they are, you can learn to accept ambivalence as part of your grieving process.
We all have to live through grief but when faced with unresolved grief, it’s natural to lose our footing and falter. With the right help and support, you can learn to work around your grief and grow with it. Your loss is unique and so is how you process it. Know that there is no right or wrong way to cope with grief.
Keep hoping and keep looking for that bright light at the end of the tunnel and you’ll eventually find your way.
Take care and be well!