Ambiguous Loss: When They're Gone, But Still Here

Jun 02, 2024

Most of us know what it means to grieve when someone dies. There are traditions and mourning rituals to help guide us through that loss, even if it's incredibly difficult.

But what happens when you experience a loss that doesn't fit that mold? When someone is still physically present, but a core part of who they were is just... gone? 

Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe the grief we experience when there’s a loss that feels unresolved, like when a relationship with a person ends but that person is (or might be) still alive. 

Some examples of ambiguous loss might be:

  • Your sister is struggling with addiction 

  • Your father is losing his cognitive and physical abilities because of the impacts of Parkinson’s disease 

  • Your best friend is missing, and the case is unsolved

  • Your mother is incarcerated

  • You’re going through a divorce: someone you used to see every day is living, but is no longer in your life the way they used to be

  • You’re sharing custody of your children, so you see them half the time you used to (or you might be navigating something like that with your dog during divorce proceedings)

One day, you're holding onto hope that they'll come back to you, to themselves, as they were. The next, you're hit with the reality that what you knew might be gone for good. Ambiguous loss can feel like a constant cycle of holding on and letting go, of being pulled between multiple, potential truths.

There's no roadmap for this kind of loss because it doesn’t follow convention of a “normal” loss: a death. Our grief may feel disenfranchised, unrecognizable to society. But for you, the loss is just as real, just as devastating, as any other kind of grief

So, how do you even begin to grieve something so ambiguous, so intangible?

Grieving ambiguous loss means accepting the complexity of the situation itself. It means creating space for the duality of presence and absence, for the push and pull of holding on and letting go. 

Here are some ways to navigate this challenging terrain:

  • Take time to sit with your feelings, as messy and contradictory as they may be. 

  • Write in a journal about your experiences with this loss. 

  • Give yourself permission to step back from responsibilities when the grief feels overwhelming. 

  • Lean on your support system for comfort, for venting, or for anything else you need. 

And if you're trying to support someone through an ambiguous loss:

  • Don't try to fix it or compare it to anything else. Just listen.

  • Check-in often, especially when the rest of the world has moved on.

  • If it feels right, reminisce about the good times, the before times. 

  • Offer practical help like meals, childcare, or errand-running. Acts of service speak volumes. 

  • Gently suggest additional support therapy or support groups if you think they're struggling to stay afloat. 

Ambiguous loss defies everything we think we know about grief and loss. But by facing the ambiguity head-on, by finding our own way through the fog, we can slowly start to find our footing again. 

It's not about moving on or getting over it. It's about learning to live with the duality of this kind of grief., Are you looking for more support around an ambiguous loss? 

Grieve Leave will be hosting a virtual Meet and Grieve focused specifically on ambiguous loss on June 11th at 8 PM EST. It's a safe space to share your story (or just listen to others), connect with people who get it, and find support! Click HERE to sign up!

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