Ambiguous Loss Explained: Examples & How It Works

Certified Grief Counselor

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When you've lost a loved one or suffered trauma and there's no closure or explanation on why it happened, you might feel like you’re grieving forever. Without answers, you're left in a state of confusion and begin seeking other ways to explain your loss.

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This type of grief, which seemingly has no end or conclusion to wrap your head around is called ambiguous loss. You're dealing with two potential types of losses — the physical loss of your loved one, and a psychological loss. 

You may experience a psychological loss when your loved one is still present but may suffer from diminished mental capacity.

For example, those suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's may be physically there, but are unable to recognize you. As your loved one suffers from a cognitive decline, it may take longer for you to come to terms with your grief. While you recognize that they’re still alive, you may not know how to make sense of the loss that you’re feeling. 

Working on ambiguous loss can be different than dealing with other forms of grief, but can be managed.

What is Ambiguous Loss? 

This type of loss is steeped in the unknown, as defined by the word ambiguous in this case. Not knowing what has happened to your loved one, not knowing what comes next, or not knowing whether you should be grieving or holding out hope.

With ambiguous loss, you will need to build strength and resiliency in order to lower your stress and anxiety associated with this not knowing. This feeling of ambiguity happens because you’re suddenly thrown into a situation where you have no control over what happens next. 

Grieving while someone is still alive

It’s completely possible and common to grieve for someone while they’re still alive. You may experience grief over the loss associated with your loved one’s mental and cognitive decline, as they suffer through addiction, or as they battle a life-threatening illness.

How to console someone during this time takes on special challenges as they’re still living but may not understand what is happening to them. At the same time, you’re also in the unique position of trying to come to terms with processing what you are feeling. 

What’s the difference between anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss?

At times, ambiguous loss can be confused with anticipatory grief, another type of grieving that may involve different circumstances.

The grief experienced in anticipation of death or some other life-altering event is known as anticipatory grief.

This type of grief is not necessarily only the result of anticipating the death of your loved one, but can also be felt over the loss of your career, income, home, relationship, or any other significant loss in your life. Other things that may cause grief are the fear of what's next, loss of companionship, and a change in finances.

Anticipatory grief differs from the grief you experience after someone you love dies. In some instances, it can cause you to react more violently. You may experience strong emotions such as anger, fear, and anxiety. You may also experience a loss of emotional control that comes with the expression of these emotions.

This type of grief can create confusion for you as you struggle with keeping hope and letting go of your loved one.

Ambiguous loss occurs when you suffer a loss that you're unable to process. It's a loss that's felt when you're left confused about what has happened or why it's happened.

It can leave you in this perpetual state of confusion without you knowing whether to accept the loss, what to do with it, or what position it leaves you in as a result of it. It's difficult to move forward with the stages of grief when you can't even wrap your thoughts around what is happening.

Stages of Ambiguous Grief or Loss

How we grieve when we suffer the death of a loved one, and the way we grieve when we have suffered an ambiguous loss differs in that with one we have closure, and in the other, we're still trying to cope with understanding what has happened.

No two people grieve the same, and no two losses are suffered in the same way. Because of this, it's important to explore how we grieve, and how the stages of grief progress from one to the next. 

With ambiguous grief or loss, these linear stages don’t apply to the way you grieve. The stages of grief become more like steps you should take to help you cope with your loss. There are eight things to consider as you go through your grief journey:

Stage 1: Regaining resilience

Making sense of what has happened is one of the biggest challenges as you begin to process your grief.

When your loved one is still physically present, but no longer the same person you remember before, or your loved one is missing, and you don’t know what has happened to them, it’s difficult for you to move forward with your grief. So, having a high tolerance for ambiguity and learning to live with not having closure becomes important in coming to terms with your grief.

Stage 2: Reaching out to others

In trying to find meaning and learning to cope with your loss, it’s important to keep moving forward with dealing with your grief.

Finding comfort in your continued relationships with others will help you establish a new normal way of living. Joining a support group is also something to consider. Being able to talk to others who are in similar situations may be helpful to you in understanding how you are feeling. 

Stage 3: Practicing self-care

Taking care of yourself is also very important in dealing with your grief. Self-care includes getting proper rest and nutrition, finding the time to exercise, taking care of your personal hygiene and mental health, among other things such as learning about what you are going through by reading books on grief.

Stage 4: Practicing mindfulness

Being mindful means being present and accepting things as they are right now. This higher awareness leads to peacefulness and a sense of calm that will help you in coping during stressful times.

Mindfulness works because it forces you to let go of the past and it relieves you of the pressure and anxiety caused when you think about what will help you in the future.

Stage 5: Accepting and letting go

Accepting things as they are may be difficult to imagine as a possibility. It’s understandable if you aren’t able to immediately find contentment and peace with things as they are. However, the more you focus on practicing self-care and mindfulness, you will find it easier to accept that there may not be any answers to the loss you’ve suffered and that it’s okay if you never know.

Sometimes you don’t have control over the way things are, and you gradually learn to let go by not holding on to the possibilities of what could have been or what you could’ve done differently.

Stage 6: Sharing in memories

As time progresses, you may consider incorporating grief rituals like sharing in memories from the past and learning to make new memories in your current reality.

Consider pulling out photo albums and sharing pictures and memories attached to them with your family and friends. Take new pictures of those in your life right now and remember to live your life instead of being suspended in uncertainty. 

Stage 7: Mastering what’s in your control

A great way to manage all the uncertainty in your life is to master the things that you are able to control. For example, keeping a clean living environment and cooking healthy meals will help you to recenter your focus on things that you already know you can do. It takes the pressure off of having to learn new things or new ways of living.

These simple steps can make you feel as if you’re in control and will alleviate some of the stress and anxiety you might be experiencing.

Stage 8: Making new memories

This step goes beyond just taking new photographs to add to your photo album. This is more aligned with you going out and actively forming new memories of your life now without your loved one in it.

As difficult as it may seem for you to accept their loss, it’s important for you to continue living your life and moving forward. Take small steps in this direction until you build the confidence to take larger, more meaningful steps in accepting your new reality. 

Examples of Ambiguous Loss

Some examples of ambiguous loss include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: Losing someone to disease is difficult to accept. It’s as if you’re in limbo - they are still physically here with you, but their cognition has so far declined that the person in front of you is no longer the person you remember. 
  • Drug addiction: Losing a loved one to drug addiction is another form of loss that may leave you feeling helpless, confused, and conflicted. Addiction typically causes your relationships to rupture. Sometimes this loss is temporary, and sometimes it creates alienation and a permanent cutoff to your loved one. 
  • Missing person: When a loved one has gone missing, you are suspended in your grief. Not knowing what has become of your loved one leaves you confused as to what to do next. You don’t know if they are dead or alive, and as a result, you don’t know how to react and process what you’re feeling. 

Dealing With Ambiguous Loss

Moving forward with life when you’re faced with the unknown is still possible when you consider that most of us have already dealt with this type of loss throughout our lives.

We experience ambiguity after a divorce, when we move from one city to another, or even when we change jobs. When you look at things this way, you begin to realize just how resilient you are and how coping through this loss can be managed.

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