Why Aren’t we Talking about “Ambiguous Grief?”


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It was an ordinary Tuesday last year when I borrowed my husband’s laptop.

What I found on it, however, was far from ordinary.

Have you ever had one of those moments when everything you’ve ever known or thought you’ve known, changes? That’s what happened that day when I discovered that my husband was leading a double life and had been for many years.

So began my descent into grief. It broke me in two. It took me a long time to recover.

And what I learned during that experience is that grief comes in many forms. When someone dies, everyone knows what to do. There are condolences, public ceremonies, even greeting cards.

But what if grief isn’t experienced due to death? What if our Dear One hasn’t departed this earth?

What if grief is instead due to the loss of a loved one who is still living?

I learned that mental health professionals call this “ambiguous grief,” which is loosely defined as “the loss of a meaningful relationship wherein the loved one is still alive, just not as they once were.”

Ambiguous grievers are all around us. We have lost our loved ones to addiction, dementia, mental illness, divorce, abandonment, or in my case, a double life.

For ambiguous grievers, our experience is not publicly recognized. Instead, it is often quiet suffering, a sense that we are experiencing our loss alone. Few around us understand, much less assist.

And while grief is universal, it is not something we like to discuss at a Friday night dinner party. Second only to shame, grief is the least researched human emotion, which is surprising considering it’s also identified as a universal experience found in both humans and animals.

So why aren’t we more fluent in the language of grief and the many forms in which it comes to visit us throughout our lifetime? Why isn’t there some accepted way of acknowledging ambiguous grievers’ experiences?

For me, it felt like being blindfolded in a dark, unknown forest. Nothing was familiar. Confusion reigned.

Since my beloved did not die, I didn’t have the luxury of an immediate and structured grieving period. Our marriage of 20 years died and I was left to grieve not only my present and my future, but a now uncertain past as well.

Without the societal milestones—such as funerals and sympathy cards—we use to heal our grief after the death of a loved one, I was left to chart my own course. I looked for answers through reading, meditation, prayer, and a lot of talk therapy. All of this to help my mind process—and maybe someday understand—why this all happened and how I could heal my life.

I was on a quest for information, looking for “my people,” or someone, (anyone) with guideposts for ambiguous grieving. Yet, nothing provided me with the step-by-step instructions for the healing I so desperately sought. So, I began to pay attention to what soothed my soul, and started to write my own remedy.

I have learned so much. Most importantly, that providing immediate triage for ambiguous grievers is imperative. Without it, we are at risk of sliding down the slippery rabbit hole known as “complicated grief.”

In complicated grief, people become more or less “stuck” in the quicksand of their loss, often unaware they are even there. The loss remains painfully acute years afterward, and grievers often come to identify it as a primary part of their identity, instead of as a life event that is one part of their human experience.

Learning about complicated grief strengthened my resolve to move through my loss, lest I find myself Alice-like, tumbling into that rabbit hole with no hope of finding my way back.

Other things that provided needed guidance were understanding Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of “The 5 Stages of Grief” and Option B, the candid story of loss and resilience by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.

As helpful as these were, I believe the healing tools for ambiguous grievers differ. We have to create our own ceremonies and rituals to replace those we can’t participate in.

For example, I couldn’t have a funeral for my (once) dear husband, but I did have a funeral for my marriage. Instead of starting a scholarship fund in his memory, I made a contribution to an organization that helped me through my grief. That kind of “tweaking” of the more traditional cultural death milestones proved cathartic, strengthened my resilience, and aided in my growth.

With support, I learned that ambiguous grievers can heal. But first we must identify, acknowledge, and name our grief. This starts by boldly, unabashedly standing in our own truth:

“My son is an addict, living on the streets.”

“My husband lived a double life through most of our marriage.”

“My mother suffers from dementia and doesn’t remember me.”

“I’ve been rejected by my parents because of who I am.”

By living in the truth of our experiences and not lying or covering it up, by not shrinking or isolating, by finding others who share this grief, healing is possible. Looking to the beautiful trees that surround my home, I find a constant message from Mother Nature about the inevitable changes in our life cycles, and hold hope that through this season of death and rebirth, beauty will surely bloom again.

If you or someone you know is dealing with ambiguous grief, check out the 7 Rerooting Tools. It is my hope that the more honest we are about our grief, the more prepared others will be in navigating its gnarled nuances when it comes knocking on our door.


Relephant Watch: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning



Author: Stephanie Sarazin
Image: Matthew Henry/Unsplash 
Editor: Kenni Linden
Copy Editor: Travis May


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Stephanie Sarazin

Stephanie Sarazin is the founder and steward of Rise Up Rooted, a budding online community where those presently living with ambiguous grief are invited to seek resources that offer support, affirmations, suggestions, conversation, and a community to help navigate the gnarled nuances of this under-recognized emotional experience. She’s identified seven rerooting tools to help others navigate the gnarled nuances of this experience. More of her musings can be found on Instagram. Stephanie is a single mom who enjoys walking her dog, reading, writing, and looking at trees.

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Amy Dagan May 5, 2018 4:54pm

What a beautifully written article. Thank you for bringing light to this hidden topic and for creating a community to help others dealing with this grief. We are all stronger together!

Phyllis C. Sarazin May 3, 2018 2:32am

More powerful and helpful than any medication.... This Ambiguous Grief topic conversation needs to be addressed more openly... I applaud you and others for speaking up, life is never easy. There will be peace of mind and happiness in the end. Looking forward to future articles...

Rachel Sarazin Bowman May 3, 2018 12:39am

“By living in the truth of our experiences and not lying or covering it up, by not shrinking or isolating, by finding others who share this grief, healing is possible.” Such an empowering statement for others who may be going through a similar experience. Thank you for sharing your journey. Keep inspiring, Stephanie!

Stephanie Sarazin May 2, 2018 11:31pm

Researching ambiguous grief and working to identify opportunities to help sufferes heal. This survey gathers data on those who have had the experience. It is 100% confidential and 100% appreciated. Thank you! https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Ambiguousgrief

Stacy Williams May 2, 2018 6:54pm

What an incredible piece that will help so many people!

Regen Kemp Newton May 2, 2018 6:46pm

Thank you for sharing your story! So glad you’re able to begin your healing journey by understanding your grief, and glad you’re sharing this important topic with other sufferers. I’m certain there are many who will benefit from this article.

Nadine Toosbuy Fairbrother May 2, 2018 6:38pm

Thank you for defining this type of grief...... I never knew what to call it. It was refreshing to read this article and for once felt understood.

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 23, 2018 10:55pm

Thank you, Rob!

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 23, 2018 10:55pm

I understand Charlea and wish you peace. You can do it.

Rob Sowell Mar 17, 2018 11:11am

As a mental health counselor, I am consistently encouraging clients to experience the grief, and the anger, and the fear just as fully as they experience happiness and excitement because they are all there for a reason; to help us find our voice and our truth and to learn to use our voice while standing in our truth. Thanks for the article.

Charlea Ann Davis Mar 17, 2018 1:21am

Thank you . I now have a name for the intense pain I have in my soul

Kate Palmer Bowers Mar 15, 2018 12:08am

Stephanie Sarazin Thank you so much for the offer! I personally am anti the codependency though when it comes to wives of sex addicts because I believe it can do alot of damage, and Dr Claudia Black who created Intimate Treason @ The Meadows also uses the codependency model. I instead prefer only the trauma model and find much more success in the teachings of Dr's like Omar Minwalla & Barbara Steffens, etc They have helped pave the way in helping women understand that their husband's addiction isn't their fault, they aren't diseased or addicted like their husband's, and therefore do not require the same treatment as an addict 💗

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 14, 2018 5:35pm

Katie, Thank you for your bravey in sharing your intimate betrayal trauma. Ambiguous grief is born quickly from such trauma and I hope you are getting the support you need. The Meadows, in AZ has a teriffic healing workshop for women with your experience. It's called "Healing Intimate Treason" and is for partners of sex addicts or those with sexual acting out behaviors. Thank you for spreading awareness with your courage to share.

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 14, 2018 5:32pm

Thank you for sharing, Louisa. My hope is that the more we share our stories, the more understood this grief will become.

Kate Palmer Bowers Mar 12, 2018 8:25pm

Thank you , this was beautiful 💗 I call "ambiguous trauma" Betrayal Trauma, which statistically in 70% of wives of sex addicts is a form of PTSD. Ive been the addict myself. I've done the lying and cheating etc etc (been in sober recovery now for 10 years). But being the SPOUSE of a sex addict and finding out my marriage was a lie, finding out the one person I trusted the most was lying, is a MILLION times more painful and harder than actually being the addict. Yet the wives are the ones most overlooked (or they are incorrectly told by unlearned therapists or 12 step meetings that they are codependent and just as diseased and addicted as the addict 😒). Thank you for spreading awareness 💗

Kerrie Young Mar 11, 2018 11:26am


Louisa Tew Mar 11, 2018 3:32am

My husband and I are going through a mutual seperation. We agree that we can try no longer but oh the grief. So glad we can beging to normalise this for people

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 10, 2018 7:14pm

Hi Jill - Thanks for sharing your story. I've found that being able to identify and name the grief is a powerful first step! I hope the rerooting tools can help you move through your grief as you begin to redefine your life. Email me anytime. You aren't alone!

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 10, 2018 7:11pm

Thank you, Steph. Thank you for your support.

Stephanie Sarazin Mar 10, 2018 7:11pm

Thank you, Kacy. I agree. It's important to recognize that caregivers are grievers, too and I know the good work you are doing supports that. Thank you for sharing my story and the message about Ambiguous Grief.

Jill Carlin Schrager Mar 10, 2018 6:30pm

This is so spot on! I wrote an article for Elephant Journal a few years ago. I recall an editor advising me that while she loved the story, it lacked a connect for the reader- a conclusion that had an expanded view and which clarified the universal message within it. I remember thinking at the time “if I could do that, I would not be as lost as I am right now.” I ultimately was able to understand the advice and incorporated it into my piece. But your piece reminds me of how I felt at the time. And I have never heard the terms “ambiguous” and “complicated” grief. I fear I may be stuck in the latter at this point. Thanks for a great article and I look forward to looking at your site. Thanks again.

Stephanie Thornton Mar 10, 2018 5:32pm

Wow! Thank you for your bravery in discussing this topic that is often swept under the rug. Healing happens when folks are brave enough to share their experiences so others know they are not alone. I look forward to learning more....

Kacy Hall Mar 10, 2018 2:36pm

This is such an important topic to be talking about. Thank you for this powerful article that will certainly help others trying to figure out how to get through this grief. I will be sharing with my family and friends and also with the many caregivers I work with that are experiencing the ambiguous grief that comes with caring for a loved one with dementia. You are awesome Stephanie!