Navigating Ambiguity: Loss Without Closure


After last weeks blog post, 9 Types of Grief and Loss Explained, I received a lot of comments and questions about Ambiguous Loss so let's talk about it.


In this post, you will learn:




Ambiguous loss is the loss that we experience when the dimensions of our loss remain unclear and undefined. Often times it feels like the loss(es) are lingering indefinitely.


You may have experienced a high sense of ambiguity and ambiguous loss over the past two years as the world has navigated the pandemic.


You may find yourself feeling like you person is gone, but not gone - here, but not here.


You may find yourself with a lot more questions than you have answers, high levels of confusions and uncertainty.


Ambiguous loss is loss without finality, without all the facts, without "closure" or a clear understanding of what happened/is happening. You may experience a loss of expectation, loss of hopes and dreams, or a lost sense of normalcy.



"The greater the ambiguity surrounding ones loss, there difficult it is to master it and the greater ones depression, anxiety, and family conflict"

- Pauline Boss




RECOGNIZING AMBIGUOUS LOSS: The Loss(es) that Remains unclear.

PHYSICAL ABSENCE, PSYCHOLOGICAL PRESENCE

(The Body is not there)


Examples:

  • Parts of the relationship may have ended, while others continue (such as divorce and coparenting)

  • It may be unclear whether the person is dead or alive - Missing soldiers, kidnapping, missing children, adoptive families may experience this within the separation from birth family

  • Separation: Family members on the move for work demands, unemployment, deployment, break-ups, or other lifestyle choices

  • Divorce: The relationship is ruptured but not completely gone

  • Person in the hospital or somewhere you are unable to visit

  • Person is overseas, in another location, and/or living abroad


PSYCHOLOGICAL ABSENCE, PHYSICAL PRESENCE

(Aspects of the mind are missing but the body is there)


This is experienced as incremental disappearance - and it may show up and slowly loosing a sense of safety a stability, slowly loosing your person and/or parts of your person and your relationships with them either quickly or over time.


Examples:

  • Alzheimers

  • Dementia

  • Substance use and addiction

  • Mental health challenges

  • Brain injury/ brain trauma

  • Preoccupation with work or outside interests (neglecting other areas of life) the partial presence threatens the stability of the relationship

  • Emotional disconnection or absence (with physical presence) - Affairs, workaholism, etc.

  • Feeling like your loved one is there, but not there

  • Loss of something abstract (trust in the world, loss of safety, loss of normalcy, loss of freedom to move about, loss of routine, etc)


IMPACTS OF AMBIGUOUS LOSS

Ambiguous loss often feels so hard because we like to solve problems, we are not comfortable with unanswered questions, being without certainty, or being without a clear pathway forward. Ambiguous loss leaves us without all of those things, and we become very uncomfortable because we dislike being in the unknown, or left with a sense of mystery.


The not knowing is a deeply uncomfortable and uncertain place for most of us, especially for those of us who are use to problem solving, finding and having answers. In our society, we are driven towards mastery, we want to find answers to our unanswered questions. The more mastery oriented we are, the harder it is to live with our unanswered questions.


When there are high levels of uncertainty within our experiences of loss, we often try to make sense of what we can - this may manifest in two ways:

  • Acting as if the person is gone

  • Or denying that change has occurred at all

This can create high levels of distress within families, especially if two individuals are responding differently to the perceived loss.


Navigating Ambiguous Loss you may experience:

  • High levels of stress

  • High levels of uncertainty and confusion

  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness

  • Feeling emotionally, physically, spiritually drained and exhausted - increasing the longer the loss(es) linger

  • Feelings of torment

  • Difficulties making sense of the situation

  • Inability to problem solve because you dont know if the loss is final, temporary, or sometimes even happening/real

  • Feeling frozen in place

  • Lack of or denial of symbolic ritual / little validation and acknowledgment

  • Chronic/long term grief


THE MYTH OF CLOSURE: FINDING COMFORT AND SPACE IN THE NOT KNOWING

There is no such thing as "closure" in the sense of getting rid of or getting over our loss, instead we learn to live with our losses and integrate our loss into our lives.


We don't have to close the door, get over it, or move on. If you've been told this before - know that there is another way through.


Instead we feel into our experiences of loss, we learn about how our loss has moved and changed us, and we step bravely into our future by holding space for the fullness of our human experiences (the both/and).


Paradoxical (both/and) statements help lower the stress in ambiguous loss.


COPING WITH AMBIGUOUS LOSS

NAME IT


Research shows that when we are able to recognize and name our losses, we are better able to self validate our experiences, and recognize the magnitude of what we are going through. Because we live in a death/grief avoidant world, sometimes we have to validate ourselves before other people are able to lean into it.


What you are experiencing is real. Your loss is real, and the pain and grief that comes with it is valid.


If you are needing additional support recognizing your loss, visit 9 Types of Grief and Loss Explained


JOURNAL


Write it out. Sometimes it can be challenging to find someone to process all of our thoughts and feelings with, journalling is a great way to get it out of your head and onto paper.


Keep it simple. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and let it out - raw, free and unfiltered.


RITUAL

Ritual and ceremony is an important part of the grieving process that those navigating ambiguous loss often don't have the opportunity for. However, it's important to mark, acknowledge and make space to grieve what has been lost even if it is not definitive. Because the loss is not definitive or final, it is important that we find ways to make space to grieve the losses we experience along the way.


Future blog posts will discuss ritualizing grief. If you have questions about this, comment below or send me an email and I will be sure to answer them!


FINDING AND RECEIVING SUPPORT


When navigating difficult times, it is ideal to receive multiple kinds of support. We all need a support system when we are navigating uncertainty, and we also benefit from support that we can offer ourselves. Creating a support plan that includes activities you can do alone, and activities that allow you to be held and supported is ideal.

  • Ask for help from friends/family/loved ones

  • Allow and give permission to yourself to receive

  • Strengthen relationships and your support system, you will need these people as you navigate the ups and downs of this journey through ambiguity

  • Support Groups

  • Therapy

  • Bibliotherapy (aka Reading)

  • Ritual

  • Spiritual Connection and Support

  • Writing


RENEGOTIATE EXPECATIONS OF SELF


You're going through a lot. It's normal and to be expected that your capacity and tolerance for other life things may not be at what it normally is. Give yourself grace as you move through these times, if you have a sense that you will be here awhile or that you're in it for the long haul - pace yourself - this may be a marathon, not a race or something we can just push through. Be sure to nurture and take care of yourself too (see blow).


NURTURE YOURSELF


This one always comes back to supporting the foundational elements of our well-being, the building blocks - Sleep, Hydration, Nutrition and Movement. Bonus points for Stress Management and Relaxation Activities.


CELEBRATE AND CONNECT TO WHAT REMAINS


I invite you to reflect on what has been lost, and also what is still alive. What still remains, and what you can still enjoy - whether it is the touch of your love ones hand even if they are not psychologically available, or the memories that remain even through their body is missing. Or maybe you're grieving the sense of in person contact, but can still celebrate other ways of connecting. This fosters resilience and supports us through the most difficult times (again, the both/and - this is really hard, and I am so glad I still have...)


Invitations for Reflecting on what remains:

  • What is lost forever? And what is still alive?

  • What is retrievable and what is not?

  • If one part of the relationship has ended, is there another aspect that continues?

  • What does all of this mean to you?

  • What do you need in order to feel supported through the ambiguity?

  • What is your next right step?




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