Working through Ambiguous Loss

Loss. Loss has hit my family in a way we didn’t expect. We knew it was coming, even knew earlier this year, but we couldn’t begin to understand the grief and loss we would experience over the past few weeks and months.

Earlier this month we lost one of our pets, Bella, our 11-year old Boxer mix. In April she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, a tumor surrounding her heart that’s fairly common in boxer breeds. We helped her fight for nearly 4 months with chemotherapy treatments, herbal supplements, and even acupuncture towards the end. But we made the impossible decision on August 5th to let her go.

Our lives will never be the same. She was a part of our family, cared for us, protected us, and fought for us in the end. We are forever thankful to have had nearly 10 years with her in our lives and will miss her everyday, every walk, and every trip we take.

Bella and Me, Summer 2020.

While we knew we would experience grief and loss eventually, it has been indescribably hard since April living with the unknown. When would she pass? When would she begin to suffer? When would we loose her?

While I had heard of ambiguous loss before, I had never experienced it myself. Each day since her diagnosis we’ve lived with the uncertainty, the trauma of not knowing, the in between life and death.

Ambiguous loss has two types: physical absence with psychological presence, and psychological absence with physical presence (Boss, 2007). In other words, leaving without saying good bye, or saying good bye without leaving. She was with us each and everyday, but we new she was leaving, that she would go one day. The harm of ambiguous loss is that it stops the grief process. Not being able to grieve properly is traumatic – it causes psychological and physiological harm.

So how can someone work through ambiguous loss?

Well there’s no simple solution. We can’t simply turn it off, or take a pill, or ignore the problem. Our bodies and minds know we should be grieving, but we can’t. We’re constantly reminded of their presence, and their absence, at the same time.

A key factor to working through ambiguous loss is a person’s individual resiliency. Take a moment and read my previous post on Working Towards Resiliency. We experience disruptions in our life, and how we react to those disruptions speaks towards our level of resiliency. We can either grow from the disruption, return to our previous level (our homeostasis), return but with loss, or return with some level of dysfunction.

Resiliency is built on innate qualities, but also how we choose to react to life events. So when we’re experiencing ambiguous loss, we must first recognize it for what it is. It’s the big rainy cloud hanging over us. Then, once we recognize it, decide how we want to react to it. While it may not feel like it, the ambiguity will end or lessen one day. In the meantime we do have the power to begin the grieving process, to recognize the ambiguity for what it is, and begin to let ourselves heal.

While these tips may not help everyone, here’s what has helped me and possibly what might help you or someone you know who’s experiencing ambiguous loss:

  1. Take time each day to experience your loved one, whether they’re there or not still. This will help you intentionally make memories and begin to recognize the loss you’re already feeling.
  2. Recognize that it’s okay for you to take time for yourself, even 15 minutes each day. You can’t not take care of yourself. Taking a walk outside, reading a chapter in a book, listening to your favorite music – these are all things that will help your body and mind continue to function and work through the ambiguity.
  3. Talk with others who may be experiencing the same feelings. If you’re feeling this way, there are probably others in your life who are feeling the same way, or have in the past.
  4. Speak with a professional if you feel frozen, stuck, or inherently negative all the time. These can be signs that you need more support – a mental health professional can help you with the grief and loss you’re experiencing.

Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous loss theory: challenges for scholars and practitioners. Family Relations, 56(2), 105-110.

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