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Ambiguous Loss

Have you ever heard of Ambiguous Loss? If not, consider yourself blessed, but know that most people have experienced this even if they do not know it, or know what it is called. Ambiguous loss occurs when you lose something without closure or a clear understanding of how or why. A simpler definition is the loss of a loved one without proof of death. It can be defined by something as simple as a breakup or your children growing and leaving the home, to a missing family member or loved one with a cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Often times, ambiguous loss can be confused by anticipatory grief. Anticipatory Grief is when someone receives a terminal diagnosis, or is injured and you are unsure of the outcome. While the types of grief are different, they can be similar in there is still hope for the person with the illness.

There are two types of ambiguous loss. Type 1 refers to when there is a physical absence with psychological presence, which includes situations such as kidnappings and missing persons from natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, or tsunamis. Other examples are loss of physical contact with loved ones caused by divorce, adoption, deportations, and other situations. Type 2 is the opposite, psychological absence with physical presence. This means their body is present but psychologically, they are not. This often occurs with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic injury to the brain, and addiction, among other causes. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that do not make sense. Infant loss, suicides and other severely traumatic occurrences are often causes of these obsessions and preoccupations.

So how does ambiguous loss differ from a “regular loss”? Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss as there is no certainty that your loved one will ever return to you, or return to the way they used to be. That can leave a person confused and vulnerable, and full of questions. After all, how do you mourn someone that you aren’t certain is truly gone? At first, people feel hope – hope that their loved one will return to them. Hope that they will get better. As time passes, hope turns to despair. Despair turns to torment. The healing process is stalled because in the back your mind, you never truly know. Sadness, anger, fear – all are common. Sad because you lost someone, anger for the same reason, fear because of the unknown. Hopefulness and hopelessness – hopeful for return, hopeless because you cannot do anything but wait. There is such an array of emotions you may feel as if you will never move on, but remember there is always resources and ways to get help during this tough time.

Now that we know what it is, how do we treat it? How do we heal from ambiguous loss? Self-health is crucial when you are awaiting the fate of a loved one. You have to keep yourself healthy during these stressful times, even though you might not be able to sleep and your appetite has all but disappeared. Sometimes, physicians will prescribe medication that can help with sleep and appetite loss. While prescribed medications may help, it is not wise to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This is known to worsen depression and sleeplessness and may cause another problem in itself – addiction. Guilt is a common occurrence, and seeking professional guidance through clergy or a therapist may help. Talking to people that have gone through this situation as it is important to not hole up and not isolate yourself.

If you know someone going through an ambiguous loss, listen. Show your support and that you care by simply being an ear or a shoulder to cry on. The best therapy sometimes is just having someone let you talk through your feelings. Pay attention and never show judgement or seem bored when they are talking. Encourage funny stories and memories. Laughter can be an unbelievable tool in healing. Take them to the movies or a show, help them stay busy. Really, there are tons of ways to help a grieving person. If you or a loved one need help, reach out. Here at Desert Lawn, we offer grief support and have 24/7 on-call staff that are always available to help. Our aftercare specialist has many free resources and guides that are available to you as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, we understand, and our priority is – and will always be – taking care of you and your loved ones!


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