Written by Therapist Sydney Kittrell
When grief is accompanied by uncertainty, confusion, or lack of closure, the already difficult grieving process can become complicated and isolating. In the past two years with the general upheaval from COVID-19, this type of loss, ambiguous loss, has become even more common. Maybe your senior year of college was interrupted and your long anticipated graduation ceremony ended up happening over Zoom. Maybe your family was planning for an extravagant beautiful wedding and with sudden restrictions, the guest list had to be whittled down to 20. Other examples could include a missing person, a miscarriage, or a family member’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
Common Reactions to Ambiguous Loss
“It’s been two years. Why am I still struggling?”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of creating strict time frames for grief or loss. Maybe it seems like all your friends are transitioning seamlessly into a new season of life and you feel left behind. Or maybe you’re frustrated that feelings of sadness are still seeping into your life long after when you thought you’d be OK.
“This really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
It’s tempting to minimize or invalidate pain especially when your community doesn’t acknowledge the difficulty or distress. When something happens like a miscarriage, there may be initial support and empathy but the solace often dwindles as time passes. You may feel pressure to match your feelings with loved ones’ expectations, but in reality you’re still struggling.
“Why can’t I just appreciate what I still have?”
This reaction is especially common when confronting chronic illness. When a loved one is diagnosed with a condition like Alzheimer’s, coming to terms with the diagnosis can be confusing. The loved one is physically present, but not fully present mentally. It can be emotionally difficult to balance a gratitude for life and a deep feeling of loss.
How Does Ambiguous Loss Affect Grief?
Research has shown that most people go through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Of course this process will differ for everyone, even when there is closure and certainty. However, ambiguous loss poses a unique challenge in the grief process; it’s easy to become trapped in one stage because there are no answers. For example, you may feel stuck at the depression stage with feelings of hopelessness and despair. Or you may feel angry all the time with no relief in sight. With these experiences leading to higher stress levels, it’s common to also experience physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive problems.
Part of what makes ambiguous loss so difficult is our culture’s emphasis on control and mastery. We want quick and efficient answers. This mindset has led to impressive technological and scientific advances but is not a proper mindset for dealing with ambiguous loss. It’s hard to accept that some things are out of our control and there are often no explanations for ambiguous losses.
How to Cope with Ambiguous Loss
By reading this blog you are one step in the right direction! Ambiguous loss can be especially difficult if we don’t understand it. Knowing that what you’re going through is normal and valid can lead to positive feelings like hope and self-compassion. Here are a few ways you can cope with ambiguous loss:
Work towards accepting the uncertainty and lack of closure.This will look different for everyone. Perhaps, it would be helpful to create your own sense of closure. After a miscarriage one can feel lost and profoundly disappointed. It may be helpful to write down all the related feelings and disappointments and share with a partner or trusted friend. In situations like estranged family members or a missing person, it can be tempting to constantly seek resolution. Learning how to navigate the uncertainty is scary, but can ultimately lead to meaning and understanding.
Refrain from Ruminating
Avoid constantly thinking about the worst-case scenario. Thinking through every possible outcome is helpful, but it’s easy to get stuck into a loop of endless rumination and feeling even more helpless. Allow yourself space to acknowledge that many different outcomes are possible and it’s OK to feel a wide range of emotions related to each outcome.
Rely on Social Support
One of the hardest things about ambiguous loss is that it is often accompanied by loneliness and isolation. When there is no certainty nor closure, your friends and family aren’t sure how to help. Be honest with your friends and family; they can’t be there for you if they don’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. Clearly stating what you need, like a home-cooked meal or a night out with friends can be so valuable, both to your well-being and the mobilization of your support network.
Finally, be kind to yourself! With ambiguous loss it is way too easy to judge or shame yourself. Give yourself lots of grace and patience during this difficult time. Make yourself a beautiful meal, go on a leisurely walk, or watch your favorite TV show. The little things can often add significant solace and cheer in the midst of a chaotic period.
If you’re going through an ambiguous loss, we’re here to help. The process towards healing can be confusing, emotionally heavy, and exhausting. Please know that you are not alone and therapy may be quite helpful in this journey. Reach out today and we can work together towards healing and meaning.