Your Wellnessmental-health

Coping with ambiguous loss: ‘Maybe someone hasn’t died, but something has been lost’

Relationship breakdowns, a friend emigrating, miscarriage or being made redundant can come with ‘an extra layer on top of the grief’

Death is not the only reason we grieve but the many forms of loss we experience do not always bring an expected closure or acceptance or allow us to mourn or feel the sorrow involved with the loss.

A relationship breakdown, divorce, saying goodbye to an emigrating friend, a person who has gone missing and fearing for their safety, experiencing war, racism, discrimination, and other losses of safety, the loss of a job or a way of life, fertility treatment, navigating a troubling past, are all forms of loss that we experience but may not recognise in a manner that needs healing.

While there may not be a death, there is a loss, an ambiguous loss, which if not recognised can become difficult to navigate.

With ambiguous loss that can be really tricky because there’s a part of us that doesn’t really learn to adjust because we’re always yearning or hoping that our loved one will be found

“Ambiguous loss is a loss that is not obvious. That’s not clear. Maybe someone hasn’t died, but something has been lost,” says Liz Gleeson, director of Shapes of Grief, which offers an online professional training and education programme on loss, bereavement and grief. Gleeson explains that disenfranchised grief “is a grief that is a loss that’s not acknowledged by society.


“For example, miscarriage is considered disenfranchised grief because there is possibly no support, or the loss is not widely recognised by society. We may say things like, at least you were only six weeks pregnant or at least you can get pregnant, and we completely minimise and diminish the grieving experience, if we do acknowledge it at all.”

A death is an obvious loss. It’s devastating and often all-encompassing with clear remembrance of a person’s life and their place in yours. But with an ambiguous loss, such as a death without a body and other forms of ambiguous loss, there are no clear lines to define the pattern of loss and it can become all the more stressful and uncertain because of that.

“It can be very difficult to grieve when someone has died or is presumed dead,” says Gleeson. “But, as we know, we never get closure from a loss. We just learn to live with it because we never get closure when someone we love dies. But with ambiguous loss that can be really tricky because there’s a part of us that doesn’t really learn to adjust because we’re always yearning or hoping that our loved one will be found.

“It’s certainly an extra layer on top of the grief. Many people turn to ritual, turn to community ritual or community ceremony by erecting a statue or a bench in memoriam to just acknowledge the loss, particularly when a body has not been found and a funeral has not taken place.”

Due to the nature of ambiguous loss, where a death is not necessarily involved, a person’s response can often be unrecognised and subsequently suppressed as though the loss is not worthy of grieving. “Suppressed grief would look different from person to person, depending on who’s experiencing it,” says Gleeson. “For a lot of us, we might get busy and just try to put it away. We might ignore the fact that something massive has been lost to us and suppress our grief to try and stay strong.

“But grief is a full-body experience. You can’t just suppress an emotion and expect everywhere else to be okay. If we do suppress our grief, it will come out in other ways. You might be sick all the time. You might have headaches, migraine, stomach upsets, because you’re not having an outward expression to your grief.”

Understanding and grieving an ambiguous loss comes with a lot of uncertainty about how to feel about the situation. There are questions as to whether this is a real loss and whether or not a person should allow themselves to grieve or not. It complicates the grieving process and can make living well difficult. When supporting a friend through their loss, Gleeson advises recognising their loss and what that means for them.

“It’s a question of acknowledging their loss,” says Gleeson. “To acknowledge their pain is to care for them like we would care for someone whose loved one has just died because, in the case of a pregnancy loss, maybe their baby has died or their hope for a baby or their wishes for the future.”

“Closure is for wardrobes,” says Gleeson, suggesting that there is no way for us to close the door on our loss - there is no point in time when we will be ready to walk away from our grief

When personally coping with an ambiguous loss, it’s important to validate the loss by naming it as just that, an ambiguous loss, which can help make sense of the loss and how it translates into your life and how you are reacting to the situation. It’s important to also remember that everyone will grieve or react differently to an ambiguous loss. If you are responding differently to your parent’s divorce compared to your sibling, or if a parent’s dementia affects you in a certain way but differently in others, it’s worth remembering that every individual’s reaction is unique and valid. Every person will interpret a loss in a different way.

An ambiguous loss can be confusing as we tell ourselves different stories, play out varying endings, and hope for one resolution over another, or find ourselves caught up in multiple ideas. We may be wishful thinking and living in a world of possible positives, or stuck with doom-filled thoughts, both of which can significantly block the reality of the situation. But we can recognise that this is a period of adjusting and understand where that adjustment will occur in our lives as we grieve the ambiguous loss.

As Gleeson says, there is no closure in managing loss. “Closure is for wardrobes,” she says suggesting that there is no way for us to close the door on our loss – there is no point in time, when we will be ready to walk away from our grief. Loss, whether it is ambiguous or not, is not something we experience in a straightforward manner, there is no end and no door to close.

Acknowledging the loss in whatever form it takes means giving ourselves permission to grieve and understanding that while the situation may not change, we can find new things to be hopeful about.