Ambiguous Losses that Bring Unresolved and Ongoing Grief

Ambiguous losses are shrouded in uncertainty, seem to go on forever, and show no signs of ending. They are much more prevalent than the general public realizes, and cause much confusion for would be caregivers who try to provide support for the bereaved.

The first type of ambiguous loss involves uncertainty with regard to whether the person involved has actually died (in cases of suspected suicide, was it an accident or?). Someone falls off a cruise liner at sea. A soldier is reported missing in action in a war zone. A child disappears without a trace. An adult is missing in a mountain climbing accident. Is the person still alive or have they died? Can survivors ever find out?

The second type of ambiguous loss is of a psychological nature. As a former consultant to an Alcohol Referral Service, there were many families who had absentee alcoholic fathers or mothers, even though both parents were living under the same roof. There was always uncertainty when the person would be home and in what condition. Addictions to various drugs bring sadness and long term grief for family members.

Alzheimer’s disease and comas induced by accidents are other examples of physical presence but uncertainty as to the actions or lack action of the persons who are ill. Divorce and remarriage, as well as immigration, heavily blur family lines and are additional uncertainty examples. It will be helpful in dealing with these losses to be aware of the following.

1. Ambiguous losses have an immense devastating impact on those who suffer through the uncertainty, and cause what appears to be never ending pain, confusion, and sadness. Trying to understand the dilemma from the point of view of the mourner is critical to providing the best support possible.

2. Troubling emotions and physical stress is ever present, since the usual predictable and assuring factors that bring some sense of security or knowing, are absent. Frequent anti-stress measures such as walking, yoga, soft music, and massage are critically important in managing any type of ambiguous loss. Diversions are essential as mourners are easily immobilized, and become stuck in their grief.

3. Social dislocation and perceptual differences in viewing the loss is common. For example, children of a family who have been deserted by a parent may feel different toward that parent or have an opposite view of the remaining parent who is still in the home. In other families with a missing member, one person may feel the person who has not been found has died, while another holds out hope that the person will be found alive.

4. Working your way out of ambiguity is no simple task when you are thinking one minute the person may be alive and the next dead. Hope and hopelessness come and go and often support of others is incomplete or nonexistent because there is no certainty that the loss is real. Depression and high anxiety are common. And, psychological loss of a person (alcohol or crack addiction, divorce, etc.) can be every bit as damaging as physical absence. Who is or is not part of my family, is a haunting question for many.

5. If you are dealing with ambiguous loss of any type, find professional assistance. There are counselors who have much expertise in this area, and can help you sort out feelings, and look at the pros and cons of taking specific actions depending on the nature of the loss. Discover the ways others have dealt with uncertain losses, take and use what rings true for you, and let the rest go for the present time.

6. If you are a friend of someone dealing with ambiguous loss, here’s how you can help. First, be infinitely patient and nonjudgmental. You cannot begin to imagine the gnawing, ongoing inner turmoil that uncertain loss generates. Your presence and confidence in the person to be able to live with this loss will provide the powerful reassurance that is so desperately needed. The person or family will find a way, but never imply there is something wrong with them for not moving on as you may feel they should.

New ways of looking at the world are needed and mourners can find highly individual coping strategies to deal with uncertainty. You can be a sounding board. Support their efforts. Encourage professional input, and make clear they will find a way that works for them. Equally important, encourage social interaction and relying on their spiritual traditions.

7. Most important of all push the crucial need for open communication among all family members. Having had two divorces within my own family, this is not always easy to do. Yet, airing differences with patience and respect, coupled with complete disclosure, can be most helpful especially for the children. Recognize that as the months and years go by symbolic remembrances are important, bouts of loneliness will be common, reevaluation of relationships can be useful, and the resiliency of most will be evident.

In summary, uncertain loss is a major source of continuous grief and pain, and is much more prevalent than is normally recognized. It can be lived with, but much input is needed from professional sources, and researchers who have found successful strategies. Do a Google search on ambiguous loss to start your education.

And, above all, if you are mourning an ambiguous loss, find a counselor or a support group who can provide the confidence needed to deal with the devastating long-term effects. This counselor can also provide a valuable service in helping you find meaning in your loss so you will be able to live with uncertainty. Changing your perception of any event, that is reframing it, can prove to be a highly successful coping strategy.