Are you a fan of Hallmark movies?
You know the ones…the cheesy, predictable, big-city-high-powered-ad-exec woman moves back to the country to take care of her ailing father only to fall in love again with her high school sweetheart at the Christmas fair?
Personally, I loathe Hallmark movies but I get the popularity because if there’s one thing we humans enjoy, it’s predictability. I mean, look at the surge in popularity of these movies during the pandemic. Our brains wanted/ needed to be able to guess what was going to happen next while living in such wildly uncertain times.
Our brains are actually trying to control and predict things ALL the time. We’re prediction machines and we definitely prefer if everything goes according to plan. So when uncertainty and ambiguity arrive on our doorstep, it breaks our prediction machines and that makes us hella uncomfortable.
And yet…life is FULL of uncertainty and ambiguity that we muddle through the best we can.
Which got me thinking, what happens when we mix ambiguity and loss? You know those times when the loss in our lives just doesn’t seem ‘finished’? It lingers. It hovers like a dark cloud. There’s no sense of closure or completion.
Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 70s to talk about loss that’s never fully resolved. Either the physical or psychological status of the person remains uncertain. It’s grief and hope all tangled up together and that ambiguity leaves us to fill in the blanks on our own – where we often imagine worst-case scenarios.
Losses that can be ambiguous:
- Unrecovered bodies (natural disasters, lost at sea)
- Military personnel missing in action
- Chronic mental health problems
- Traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer’s/ dementia
- War/ genocide/ refugee camps
- Drug/alcohol addiction
- Loss of safety
- Loss of identity
- Children stolen and placed in residential schools
Unlike death, these losses don’t have a concrete ending.
The people are often still alive but no longer recognizable or no longer part of your life. Or we “presume” they are dead, but without really knowing we cling to hope in a way that makes it hard to move forward.
Ambiguous loss feels harder to heal.
Dr. Boss says there is either a physical absence (adoption, estrangement, kidnapping) and a psychological presence. Or there is a psychological absence (dementia, TBI, addiction) and a physical presence. And it’s this tension between presence and absence that makes our grief feel more…complicated.
Ambiguous loss can leave us feeling:
- Unable to sleep
- Preoccupied with thoughts of the loved one
- Physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, tension, aches, pains, and changes in appetite.
And it’s not uncommon to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to numb or avoid these emotions that feel like they will never end because we’ll never know for sure. Studies are now showing that this unresolved grief can unfortunately be misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety further complicating the processing of these difficult emotions and impeding healing.
Ambiguous grief is particularly tricky because it can feel like a double-edged sword. We grieve what WAS – wishing things had been better/different, wishing we had more time, brooding over what was or wasn’t said or done. At the same time, we grieve WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN – future dreams, a chance to say more/ do more, or repair what was broken. AND, as if that wasn’t enough we grieve the new reality we find ourselves in – the in-between, the limbo.
Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia can come with hundreds of losses. Do you mourn their loss of independence? When they no longer recognize you? When they no longer recognize themselves? Your role shifts from partner to caregiver. And caregiving comes with enormous demands on your time, energy, and finances. You also may face the point at which you can no longer safely care for your loved one at home – you can mourn the loss of their physical presence and psychological presence while they’re still alive. Every change can invite a new wave of loss. And as isolating as this experience can feel – remember that you’re not alone. While you gather support around yourself, I encourage you to listen to “Soon” by Snow Patrol and “Silent House” by The Chicks.
Taking care of ourselves
Since ambiguous loss isn’t easily recognized, acknowledged, or understood by others, it’s easy to see how it can make you feel more alone. But, you’re not alone … support is available. So, how do we begin to take care of ourselves when we experience an ambiguous loss?
BACK TO BASICS
Eat. Sleep. Move your body. Sometimes even the simplest things can feel too much.
A therapist. A grief counselor or coach. A support group. Friends who know how to hold space for you. You can also find resources on ambiguous loss here.
Naming the loss gives us back some of our power. Naming the emotions we’re experiencing helps us to move through them and release them.
PREPARE FOR TRIGGERS
Holidays. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Ask for what you need to make it through these extra challenging days.
Lean on your spirituality. Get involved in a cause. Find gratitude for the moments you shared. And along with finding meaning comes acceptance of your new reality and perhaps, answers to the question, “who are you now?”
I know these neat and tidy lists make it look like it’s supposed to be easy. Like you can check off items on the road to healing just like you would your grocery list.
When in reality, it’s messy and bumpy. It often feels like 1 step forward 2 steps back kinda progress and I want to applaud you – no matter where you are on your journey, for being brave enough to take the first step and keep going. Learning to live with loss is some of the hardest work we’ll do as humans on this planet.
And even though loss is universal our experience of it is nuanced and personal – and every relationship we grieve is unique to us – a mix of highs and lows, sweet moments, great adventures, and heartbreaks that no one else will experience exactly as we have.
I’m going to leave you with a quote from Dr. Boss
“I intentionally hold the opposing ideas of absence and presence because I have learned that most relationships are indeed both.”
As always, I’m here to walk with you through your healing journey whenever you’re ready for a little extra support. You can book a call here.