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Ambiguous Grieving

Updated: Feb 28


ambiguous grieving

This is one of a series on grief.  Be sure to check out the other posts:  Grief thru a natural causes Anticipatory Grieving, Complex Grieving (suicide, accidents–grouped because they’re harder get through), Ambiguous Grieving a loss when they are still alive–cutting someone out, Secondary Grieving.  The causes can be varied.  In this series we explore the different types of grief to broaden your understanding, and offer practical help for dark days.  


In human experience, grief is a natural part, and within the overarching idea of grief, one finds the lesser-explored yet profoundly impactful realm of ambiguous grieving. Ambiguous grieving defies conventional expectations, as it involves mourning without the clarity of closure or a tangible endpoint. In essence, it's a type of loss where the circumstances or the nature of the departure are unclear as in a missing person or the person may be alive but no longer in your life.  That presents a unique set of emotional challenges. As we delve into this profound and often misunderstood facet of grief, it becomes crucial to comprehend its definition, understand its manifestations, and appreciate the diversity within the grieving experience. Understanding ambiguous grieving is not only an acknowledgment of its intricacies but also a testament to the diversity of human experiences in the face of loss.


Ambiguous Grieving Defined


Ambiguous grieving, at its core, is characterized by the absence of clear closure or certainty surrounding a loss. Unlike more conventional forms of grief where the cause or nature of the loss is evident, ambiguous loss leaves individuals in a state of uncertainty and limbo.


Ambiguous grieving includes when, for your own well-being, you must cut someone out of your life. This type of grieving can manifest in various situations, creating emotional challenges that differ from those associated with more straightforward losses. For instance, situations such as a missing person, the absence of closure in a relationship, or even the ambiguous loss experienced by families dealing with a loved one suffering from dementia exemplify the diverse contexts in which ambiguous grieving occurs.


Layers of Ambiguous Grieving


There are layers of grief involved. While the person is still alive, a deep seated hope may remain that the relationship can be salvaged - yet, intellectually, you know it can’t be. Ambiguous grief is the death of the relationship–the idea of who they could have been in your life.


In the realm of ambiguous grief, the line between presence and absence becomes blurred, and individuals grapple with the emotional turmoil of mourning someone who is physically or emotionally unavailable. The distinction between ambiguous grief and other forms of mourning lies in the elusive nature of resolution. Unlike the relatively clear-cut boundaries that accompany traditional losses, ambiguous grieving lacks the closure that typically aids in the healing process. This distinction brings about a unique set of challenges, as individuals navigate the complex emotions associated with loss while wrestling with the ambiguity that shrouds it. Understanding these nuances helps provide empathetic support and foster resilience in those experiencing ambiguous grief.


Manifestations of Ambiguous Grief 


The decision to cut someone off is often a painful and emotionally charged process, marked by a profound sense of loss and grief. While society may emphasize the importance of self-care and boundaries, it also can give the contradictory message that you should include a person in your life, simply because you are related. The emotional toll of making such a decision is less frequently discussed. Standing firm on the choice to cut someone off can evoke a complex mix of emotions, including guilt, sadness, and a deep sense of loss. It's a recognition that, despite the necessity for one's well-being, the act of severing ties with someone carries its own weight of grief.


This form of grief is unique, as it involves mourning not the physical loss of a person but the loss of a connection, a relationship, or the potential for a different outcome. Individuals navigating this process may find themselves caught between the conflicting emotions of relief and sorrow. On one hand, there's relief in taking a step toward personal well-being and setting boundaries. On the other hand, there's the sorrow of acknowledging that the relationship has reached a point where cutting ties is the only viable option. It's a poignant acknowledgment that self-preservation sometimes necessitates letting go, even when the heart may wish for a different resolution.


The grief associated with cutting someone off highlights the complexity of human relationships and the sacrifices individuals make for their own mental and emotional health. It underscores the importance of self-compassion during this challenging process, recognizing that prioritizing one's well-being is a valid and courageous choice, even if it comes with its own set of emotional challenges and grief.


For those grappling with ambiguous grief in situations where the person wasn't voluntarily cut off, such as dealing with the absence of a missing person or witnessing a loved one's decline due to dementia, the pain takes on additional layers of complexity. In cases of a missing person, the uncertainty and lack of closure amplify the emotional burden. Families may find themselves suspended in a state of perpetual waiting, hoping for answers and closure but unable to attain them. The ambiguity surrounding the person's whereabouts or well-being creates a persistent sense of yearning and an inability to fully reconcile with the reality of the situation.


Similarly, when a loved one experiences dementia, the ambiguous loss unfolds gradually over time. The person may physically be present, but the essence of who they were seems to slip away, causing a unique and prolonged form of mourning. It involves grieving the loss of the person's cognitive abilities, memories, and the shared experiences that once defined the relationship. The ambiguity lies in the gradual erosion of the familiar, leaving individuals to navigate a complex emotional terrain that involves both the presence and absence of their loved one. In both scenarios, the challenge lies in finding ways to cope with the ambiguity and foster resilience amid the intricate layers of grief.


The Challenge of Decision-Making Amidst Ambiguous Grieving


Difficulty making decisions can manifest as a poignant aspect of ambiguous grief, particularly when faced with the loss of a person who is still physically present but emotionally distant. In such cases, the emotional disconnection creates a complex emotional landscape, leading to uncertainty and hesitancy in decision-making. The struggle arises from the ongoing mourning of the emotional connection that once existed, even though the person is physically there, contributing to a sense of ambiguity and emotional turmoil.


Another facet of difficulty in decision-making emerges when grieving the absence of resolution in a relationship. Ambiguous grief often arises when relationships face unresolved issues or lack closure, leaving individuals grappling with the emotional burden of what could have been. The lingering questions and unaddressed aspects of the relationship can cloud decision-making processes, making it challenging to move forward with clarity and confidence.


When I was a child in Iowa, Johnny Gosch was delivering newspapers in Des Moines, and then was never seen again.  His parents were on national television, begging for information about the whereabouts of their son.  Johnny’s picture became the first of other missing children on milk cartons across the midwest.  Their pain is something that though I never knew them personally, touched me.  They never found Johnny.  This example is one where what started as ambiguous grieving then shifted to complex grieving. 


Support and Understanding During Ambiguous Grief


Supporting someone going through ambiguous grieving requires a delicate and understanding approach. First and foremost, offering a compassionate presence can be immensely comforting. Simply being there to listen without judgment or the pressure to find solutions allows the person to express their emotions freely. Additionally, acknowledging the complexity of their grief and validating their feelings helps to create a safe space for them to navigate the intricate layers of ambiguity.


Practical assistance can also be invaluable. Offering to help with daily tasks, such as delivering a meal, cleaning the house, walking the dog, taking other children that may be in the home for a time, or providing companionship, can alleviate some of the burdens associated with ambiguous grief. Creating an environment where the person feels understood and supported in their unique grieving process fosters a sense of connection during a challenging time.


Encouraging professional help is another essential aspect of supporting someone through ambiguous grief. Suggesting therapy or counseling can provide them with a structured space to explore their emotions, gain coping strategies, and receive guidance from a trained professional. Sometimes, having an external perspective can offer valuable insights and support in navigating the complexities of ambiguous grief.  


Here’s how you can do this.  “I can see what a difficult time you’re having.  I know I’m not trained to help you through the intense challenge you’re facing right now, but there are others who are. Would you be open to making an appointment with someone who can help you?  If you want, I’ll help you find someone.”


Respecting the individual's pace is crucial. Grief is a highly personal journey, and people cope differently. Avoiding pressure to move on or find closure allows the person to navigate their grief at their own rhythm. Keep the lines of communication open and check in regularly for ongoing support. Acts of kindness, even small gestures, can make a significant difference in helping someone feel seen, heard, and cared for during the ambiguous grieving process.


If you or someone you know is grieving and wants extra support, talk with a HOLD professional listener. We're here for you!



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