By: Chris Anderson Psy.D.

The concept of ambiguous loss originated with Dr. Pauline Boss in the 1970s. Ambiguous means something that is unclear. In this case, we are talking about losses that are ambiguous or unclear. These types of losses are sometimes unrecognized as losses or are the types of losses that result in a low likelihood of obtaining closure and understanding common to most losses. Consequently, many people end up wrestling with some unresolved grief. The lack of closure people yearn for can leave people trying to fill in the blanks themselves due to incomplete information.

Ambiguous Loss: Type One

This type of ambiguous loss occurs when the person is physically absent, missing, or gone, but there remains a psychological presence. Many mothers experience this type of loss with a miscarriage or when giving a child up for adoption. They still feel a psychological connection that was present during the pregnancy even after the baby is physically gone. Sudden disappearances like kidnapping, natural disasters, or terroristic events such as 9/11 leave people wondering about their loved ones and create ambiguity. A variety of departures also create an ambiguous loss. Examples include divorce, separation as the result of immigration, deportation, and military deployment. Many people still feel the psychological connection in the absence of a physical relationship. Even COVID-19 created a loss to social interactions, family, jobs, and colleagues despite having a psychological and even visual (Zoom) and auditory (phones) connection to the person.

Ambiguous Loss: Type Two

This type of ambiguous loss occurs when there is a physical presence but a psychological absence. The most common form of this is seen with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Although the person is still here and accessible, their personality, character, memory, and shared experiences are not. The loss of a person’s true or former self is also seen with traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s), active alcohol and drug addiction, depression, and other chronic mental illnesses. Those aware of the ambiguous loss are often able to grieve somewhat more so or even begin working through some of their grief and loss before the person dies, often seen with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

How do You Cope with Ambiguous Loss?

People often experience a variety of symptoms when dealing with ambiguous loss that can include: confusion, poor sleep, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, loss of appetite, and more. One of the best ways to cope with ambiguous loss is to realize and acknowledge that you are dealing with a loss. Labeling it helps many to begin processing their feelings. Finding support is crucial for many, as is patience with yourself. Afford yourself the time and space to work through what you are experiencing. Work toward acceptance. This is a difficult task for most but remember that we are not necessarily accepting the loss so much as we work to accept the reality of the situation. This acceptance opens you to be able to process feelings of anger and pain around the loss.

Maple Grove Psychiatrists

If you need help navigating an ambiguous loss, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule an individual consultation with one of our providers so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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