This is the second post of a three-part series on Grief and Loss. In part one, "The Grieving Myth: 5 Steps to Healing", I discussed the 5 Stages of Grief model and the common myths surrounding the "right" way to grieve. Today's post is about Ambiguous Loss, a form of grieving that is not commonly understood. My hope in writing about Ambiguous Loss is to provide a name for what you may be experiencing as well as resources to help you reach your goal of healing.
Ambiguous Loss is a form of Grief that occurs when a loved one is either psychologically or physically gone, but not both. The term was coined by Dr. Pauline Boss in her book, "Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief". The difference is that in Ambiguous Loss there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back.
According to ambiguousloss.com, There are two types of Ambiguous Loss. Type One is when the loved one is physically gone but psychologically still present. Examples include adoption, divorce, immigration, and more commonly discussed in the news today, distance from family due to refugee status. Type Two is when the loved one is physically present but psychologically absent, such as when a parent has Alzheimer's or dementia, depression, addiction, or any other situation in which a person's personality or memories are not accessible.
If I were to bet money, I would bet that most people reading this have experienced Ambiguous Loss at some time or another. In my own life I have experienced Ambiguous Loss due to divorce, addiction, breakups, moving, dementia, and death.
Unfortunately, we often miss these experiences as a form of grief. More often I have seen people who are experiencing Ambiguous Loss call it a "difficult transition" or a "period of adjustment." In my experience, we downplay our emotional struggles when we believe we "shouldn't" be struggling in the first place. If you are living with Ambiguous Loss, please know that your experience is exactly what it should be, and there are ways of feeling whole again.
When I am working with a client who is experiencing Ambiguous Loss, my first step is to call it what it is: Grief. In my opinion, one of the most harmful assumptions we make in terms of mental health is assuming Grief can only accompany a physical death. Wrong. We can grieve romantic relationships, friendships, homes, a certain time in our lives (e.g., childhood, college) and opportunities we never took advantage of. We can feel the effects of Grief without a specific death to tie to it.
The second step I take when Ambiguous Loss is present is finding meaning in my client's experiences. This looks different with each client and provides an opportunity for the client to discuss what their experience has been like for them, what it means to them, and how they make (or don't make) sense out of what happened without Judgment or Shame telling them they "should" be okay.
Healing from Ambiguous Loss takes time, and just like many other problems, it never goes away completely. To get started on the journey, call a therapist you trust.
Lindsey Boes, MS, MFTC can be reached at 720-507-4234 or Lindsey.Boes@gmail.com.
The posts provided here are intended to provide psychoeducation, resources, and support for current clients, potential clients, or anyone seeking information about mental health. These posts are not a suitable replacement for mental health services including medication, therapy, counseling, or crisis managment. If you are seeking help for any mental health or relationship struggle, please contact a mental health professional you trust.