Grief is messy and complicated.
Neither linear nor cookie cutter, grief can not be salved by any one prescription. As Psychologist Susan David, PhD, put it: “Grief is love, looking for a home.”
The term ambiguous grief (also referred to as ambiguous loss), describes unresolved grief, where circumstances lack a clear conclusion or closure.
I recently experienced the loss of someone dear to me. Not to death, which I am convinced in some ways would have been easier. I know this is a controversial sentiment, and yet I know it to be true. My experience with ambiguous grief has opened my eyes to a whole new paradigm—one in which many are suffering in silence, their secret grief held tightly to their chest.
I do not aim to offend anyone who has lost a loved one to death’s greedy hands. If you have recently experienced such loss, my heart goes out to you. Yet for those who find themselves unable to voice or even name their grief, for fear of judgment or ridicule or being seen as weak, or any other myriad of reasons, this is for you.
When we lose someone to something other than death, like when our loved one’s mind fails because of a memory disease, addiction, or mental illness, it is devastating. While their familiar face may still exist, discovering that we no longer recognize a person we love—someone who shaped our heart—will break our heart.
Ambiguous grief is the most difficult grief to process. It has all of straightforward grief’s characteristics, yet is the most isolating. How can you expect someone to understand your mourning over someone who is still living? Especially when your mind starts spinning the Wheel of Comparison. “Her dad died; I can’t tell her that I’m depressed because I feel like I lost mine to his dementia.” Or, “She lost a child. If I share with her that I have been grieving my son since he succumbed to his addiction, surely she will chastise me, saying that at least I still have hope.” To which the heart mourning secretly will whisper, “At least she has peace.” Or, “At least people expect her to grieve, and she is not left alone in it.”
Our minds are sharp to sense these types of reactions well in advance, wise to try to protect us from the potential backlash we fear upon sharing the truth of our experience with others. When letting go of someone you love because your relationship with them is harming you, it is not uncommon to be met with a list of “shoulds” accompanied by shame-drenched, watery words guised as advice: life is short, and he or she is your mother/father/sister/brother/husband/wife. The implication that your pain does not matter because it is a family member who is inflicting it is insulting—well-intentioned as it may be.
Yet, the self-protective mechanism that keeps us quiet about our pain is a double-edged sword. In protecting us from ridicule, it also prevents us from finding healing connection and support. As a dear friend of mine stated recently, we seldom find healing in isolation. Discerning with whom it is safe to share what we are going through is crucial.
Trying to find common ground about our grief with someone who recently lost their beloved parent prematurely to cancer may blow up in our face when we share that we, too, lost our parent. They are likely to respond with something normal along the lines of, “I am so sorry. How did they die?” To which our honest answer would be, “Well, no, they did not actually die, but I no longer choose for them to be in my life because they are not well, and their illness is making me ill.”
Equating these two distinct losses is offensive to the person who lost their parent to death. Yet, it is the closest simulation the one who lost their parent to something else altogether can imagine. Each one envies the other. Because of this, solidarity is seldom found by the ambiguous griever.
Here are some things that have helped me in my own journey with ambiguous grief. Maybe they will benefit you, too. (Please note: I am not a mental health professional, and this article should not be used as a substitute for seeking the help of one.)
Know Your Audience
A trusted, experienced psychotherapist or mental health counselor with a specialty in grief and loss is the best place to start. They will be able to equip you with the tools to heal and navigate your new reality.
Find the people who get it. They do exist, and you will know them by how you feel around them. Call upon your most compassionate comrades, the friends who know, love, and don’t judge you. Allow them to be there for you, just as you would be for them.
Create Space to Process
The vast changes you are experiencing need to be digested. Journal, take walks in nature, go to your favorite restorative yoga class. Do the things that make you feel whole and remind you of who you are, outside of the loss you are grieving.
Perform a Ceremony or Ritual
For all of history, when humans lose someone to death, we mark it with a ceremony and usually some type of agreed upon ritual. We mourn our loss, celebrate and honor the life that was lived, the lives that were touched, and the love that was felt in the arms of our lost loved one.
We burn or bury the body, sending their spirit on its way to whatever mystical realm is next with love, prayers, and devotion. We dress in black, light candles, and hold week-long shiva or thirteen-day long shraddha. We gather together and allow ourselves to be supported by our family and community to help us find our own breath again.
Even elephants have rituals for acknowledging and processing loss. They and other animals, too, experience distress when a member of the herd or pod or pack or tribe is lost. If even animals mourn losing a member of their family, can we not extend to ourselves enough compassion to do the same? To allow the feelings we need to feel in order to process the devastation of realizing that a piece of ourselves is forever lost to us?
Ceremony and ritual exist to help us digest and accept what is. Even when we have lost someone to something other than death, we can still perform a ceremony or ritual to honor the loss of who the person either was, or was to us.
In her book Lost and Found, Kathryn Shulz writes, “If anything, it [grief] keeps them dead: eventually, if you cannot stop mourning, the person you love will come to be made only of grief.” Ceremony and ritual help us remember the good, and hold on to the love that person brought into our life at one time or other. This is important if we do not wish to lose them entirely, if we wish to preserve the memory of their best, to keep a touchstone of their love in our hearts.
When we lose someone to mental illness, addiction, an abusive relationship, or anything else that causes such drastic change in a person that they are no longer recognizable to those who love them, there is a risk that our entire memory of them will become marred by the version of them that hurts us so deeply. When we can divorce the two and bury the former, we may be able to accept the current version. At the very least, we may be able to view the current version as neutral (if they are still present in our life) and not continue to anticipate or expect them to be who they once were.
This could even birth an opportunity to form a new relationship with the person altogether, perhaps not as a parent or spouse, but as a quirky friend who we do not lean on for support the way we would have had they not shifted so drastically. Or, it could be the best way forward, opening up the possibility of moving on with our life and finding the peace we so desperately seek.
Regardless of the intention for the letting go ceremony itself, the intention going into it is key.
Here are some practices you may find helpful. Take what resonates, and leave what doesn’t.
>> Write a letter to your loved one. This letter is not to be shared with them; it is not meant for anyone else’s eyes. This letter is for you to get everything you need to off your chest, from all of the things you miss about your loved one, to how agonizing it is to realize you have lost them.
>> Burn or bury the letter. If you burn it, do so safely. Perhaps sing a song or chant as it goes up in flames and you say goodbye. If you bury it, consider planting seeds of your loved one’s favorite flower. There, you will have a memorial for them, a reminder of the love you carry for them that will never be extinguished.
>> Let yourself feel the weight and burden of your loss. Cry, scream, punch a pillow. Give yourself one entire day for your emotions to flow. When you feel complete, light a (nontoxic) candle, sage your space, go for a walk, or take a salt bath.
>> Plan something fun with people who are easy to be around to get out of the house and out of your own head.
>> Send your lost loved one love whenever they come to mind, and resist the urge to reach out to them. Instead, meditate and imagine speaking to the version of them that was healthy.
If you know someone who is dealing with the heartbreak and confusion of ambiguous grief, support them by listening. Understand that they do feel as though someone they love, along with part of themselves, has died. Please, please resist the urge to “should” them. They are already battling those shoulds internally.