Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

The Unique Wounds of Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous loss, as it relates to death, happens in two ways.

A loved one may be physically absent, missing and potentially dead, but without definite evidence to confirm a death.

A loved one may be mentally absent due to conditions like dementia or other circumstances near the end of life that make them inaccessible to us even though they are physically still alive.

In either circumstance, family and friends are impacted by the absence of a formal acknowledgement of loss that begins an outward, expected grieving process. Instead, there may be an on-going dance between anticipatory grief, and the possibility of hope.

According to the work of William Worden, the tasks of mourning include a need to accept the reality of death. When you do not have the chance to view a still body, to touch a cheek one more time, and come together with others in a gathering to honour the deceased, it can be difficult to find a way forward. Similarly, when your loved one has good days and seems bright and well, it may be hard to accept the truth of a terminal diagnosis.

In either scenario, it’s common to seek information and it’s unusual to find definite answers. The ambiguity creates a storm of mixed emotions quite different than the experience of other death that is as clear and complete as it is heartbreaking. Denial is a common experience. It can be easier to avoid the facts when the situation is uncertain.
Denial can prevent families and friends from adapting to the situation. The unresolved situation of a missing person can leave people stuck, afraid to move on for fear of letting their loved one down. In the case of a family member becoming absent through such conditions as dementia, or decreasing consciousness, denial may mean that people miss the opportunity to be present, to appreciate the person who is dying and to say a meaningful goodbye. Either way, the wounds of ambiguous loss linger, difficult to heal as the mourner struggles with questions and regret.

Healing through ambiguous loss involves the ability to redefine a relationship with the person in their absence. Sometimes this involves adapting how you think about them and other times it involves actions you take to respond to the difference in how things are now. Once you have gathered as much information about the situation as possible, you can begin to make choices about how you will think and act in relationship to this difficult situation.

There is no one right way to adapt to ambiguous loss. Each person must gather relevant information about their own situation, and then set boundaries that help with adjustment. If you face such circumstances with someone in your life, be sure to hold yourself with deep compassion as you move through these steps and tend to your own needs. It will not always be this way. You can make meaning and find hope through your thoughts and actions in such a way that will allow you to rest as easy as possible even under such circumstances.