Grief is uncomfortable. Grief is brutal and beautiful all at once. I have become a reluctant student of grief. Perhaps not the grief we are most familiar with. This is a particular sort, sometimes known as “Ambiguous” grief – experienced when you lose a loved one, just not to death. Maybe it was betrayal, divorce, illness, addiction, or an accident. Either way, the person you knew and loved hasn’t died, they just aren’t the same person anymore. What you loved about them is gone, yet they remain. This is a kind of grief that has changed how I see love. How I see the future AND the past. Ambiguous grief is torture. I know that many people reading today won’t ever experience this kind of grief – and I’m glad for you.
You don’t want this.
For those that have, or are walking this path, I hope the collection of research, musings, heartbreak, and my own attempt to rise from the fire-burning-hell-on-earth life I’ve been living will help you, or someone that you know. My hope is that this space will serve a community working toward healing their grief by offering experiences from many voices and resources. I hope it will help you begin to heal and know that you too, CAN rise up rooted.
Really excited for the launch of ambiguousgrief.com. In collaboration with my research partner, Dr. Sophia Caudle, this site features everything Ambiguous Grief (AG):
🌱the AG Process Model 🌱the AG survey and (interesting) survey findings 🌱an Assessment Tool- to help determine if you are experiencing AG 🌱links to helpful articles and meaningful personal stories.
It’s my hope that this website will serve both patients and clinicians alike, and help them to recognize and name this grief. Doing so is the start of a positive pathway to healing, and I know it’s important.
The capacity to recover quickly from difficulty is known as resilience, and we hear a lot about it today. Or at least, those of seeking to understand grief and healing do! It’s a cornerstone block in the building of life, and has proven to me, to be a valuable tool that I’ll strive to keep sharpened. Undoubtedly, we will all face adversity in life. But, I’ve recently learned, it’s our ability to find and hone our resilience that determines how we get through that adversity and come out the other side. Or not.
As I came out of the shock phase of my discovery, (which was many months after D-Day), I began looking for tools to feel better. Showering and meditation helped, but only momentarily. I needed more sustained reprieves from my grief. It was about that time, two friends sent me the then new book, OptionB by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s a beautiful, candid story about love and loss, hope and healing. In it, the authors speak of the importance of resilience. Working on it daily, building it like a muscle, they said, was key.
“I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked Adam how I could figure out how much I had. He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity—and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
I devoured the book, reading it like a text book, complete with notes and margins and plenty of highlighting. Ok, I get it. I need to get resilient, and fast.
Thankfully, the authors offer suggestions that I immediately instated into my daily practice. It was one in particular, that made a huge difference for me:
At bedtime, write down 3 things you did well that day.
For me, this started out teeny tiny, I struggled to identify 3, and my list looked like this:
“Got out of bed”, “Brushed my teeth”, “Packed school lunches”.
But I stuck with it, and night after night, I noticed the list was growing. I had 5 things, then 7, then 10 things that I could list that I didn’t just DO, but DID WELL. A year after beginning this practice, I saw just how far I had come.
“Ran 3 miles”, “Folded and PUT AWAY 3 loads of laundry”, “Booked flight for family trip”.
I wasn’t just taking baby steps back into reality, I was now living in the moment and able to dream (albeit just a little) about my future.
This exercise provided me with a way to build my resilience muscle. All in a 1-minute mental exercise, laying in my pajamas. (If only my abs could be built that way!)
Over time, it’s precisely that resilience that teaches us so much about who we are. It shows us our capacity to love, our determination to heal, and the inspiring human ability to find joy after heartbreak.
If you would have asked me about my own resilience 3 years ago, I would have shrugged not knowing.
Today, I own it, embrace it, and celebrate it. I have worked so hard to learn about my particular kind of grief and take control of my healing. Along the way, I’ve met my own resilience, an unexpected part of me that I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know.
There are moments that strike where my body shifts, and my mind trips into a space I dread. In these moments, which materialize from any number of unrelated happenings, I find myself facing a most burdensome emotion: Shame.
It consumes my body. It feels hot and sweaty. It prickles my skin and stabs into my gut. It sits on my shoulders, a heavy, uncomfortable load. It is nearly unbearable, and I scan my space for relief. But nothing helps, and let me tell you, I’ve tried a lot!
Not chocolate (drats!), not wine.
Not loud music, or a fast run.
Not punching pillows, or screaming under the covers.
Those things help relieve stress, but for me, they do nothing for shame. I see Shame as that unwanted part of myself that I can’t escape. It’s a remembrance of what I’ve done, or not done, or who I am, or who I’ve become. It’s an ugly mirror I’d rather never see. Thankfully, I understand that I’m not alone in this and that shame is universal.
Brene Brown, the beloved storyteller and researcher who studies shame says, “ I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
We’ve learned from Dr. Brown’s research, that shame cannot survive empathy. If we’re vulnerable with our shame, and share it, speak of it, and not hide from it, then we open ourselves to the opportunity to connect with others. In doing so, we then invite a space for those understanding our shame, to offer us empathy. In that beautiful gift the shame begins to evaporate. It becomes less burdensome. I suspect this is because we have just authentically connected with another, and not subsequently rejected for doing so.
In my journey through ambiguous grief, it’s been an important learning for me to identify shame. As an empath, being able to understand and feel another person’s pain or insecurity, it’s especially important that I learned early to identify my shame versus the shame of others.
When I accidentally discovered that my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was, and that my then-husband wasn’t the person I knew him to be, Shame settled in and became an unwanted house guest. (Not unlike Shame’s first cousin Grief, whom I write about often).
What took me time to unravel though, was that the shame I was experiencing wasn’t mine. That heavy feeling didn’t come from who I was or wasn’t. What I had done, or hadn’t. It was coming from me feeling pain for the person I had loved so deeply. Pain for the shame he must be carrying. And not only because of WHAT had happened, but because I understand that there is a deeper, underlying shame that drove those choices.
In looking to connect with others in my position, I was disappointed to find that many (most?) women weren’t talking about betrayal trauma. I asked professionals about why this was and was met, time and again with the same answer: “They feel ashamed.”
This struck me.
I was naive, to the experience of trauma and to the power of shame, so I wondered:
Why would a VICTIM of someone else’s abuse be quiet about their experience when THEY weren’t responsible for it?
I was told by one betrayal professional, “your beef is well-taken…but women aren’t speaking out because they feel ashamed…even though they didn’t cause the trauma, they are associated with the other person’s actions, which is often embarrassing ”.
So if victims aren’t talking about it, what happens?
Shame, when not exposed to empathy will grow. Even if the person knows it wasn’t their fault, and they didn’t cause the events to happen. Deeply embedded shame digs in and roots itself. Unattended, it festers and moves untamed until, I believe, one’s own soul becomes covered in the tangled mess that has grown. Without connection to our soul, how are we connecting to the divine within us? How do we connect with our higher power? How do we tune in to our own GPS? With shame so thick, it makes sense that researchers believe it drives our egos, and hijacks our being.
So, what to do with this feisty beast?
For me, when that prickle arises and I know Shame is coming, I pause. Like an early warning alarm notifying a town of imminent dangerous weather, I heed the warning and begin to prepare. I’ve created my own little warning system protocol, too. Here it is:
I stop what I’m doing. I sit and I breathe. I scan my body for the space the shame is developing. Then I ask the most important question I can in that moment:
“Is this my shame?”
I sit some more.
Within moments, I have my answer.
Most often, the answer is no.
No, this is not my shame.
I push out a long exhale, shake out my limbs and let it pass through until it’s gone.
(Which doesn’t take long).
I remember it as an ACRONYM:
STOP – get quiet and pause
HONE – tune in to find the trigger
ASSESS – scan your body and focus on the feeling
MEET IT – look directly at it and repeat the question “is this my shame?”
EXHALE – armed with your understanding, breathe that shame-energy right out of your body.
Identifying and being able to separate my own shame of things from the shame I feel over the actions of others, has saved me uncounted hours of grief.
When I identify that the shame I’m feeling is my own, I give gratitude for Dr. Brown’s work, and know the remedy lies in vulnerability and empathy. So, I take her prescription and share my shame with a trusted loved one, mentor, or my therapist. It’s amazing what the simple acknowledgement of shame can do for it’s healing.
Time and again, the simple act of identifying and understanding the source of shame and to whom it belongs, has helped me. I believe it has kept that gnarly entangled overgrowth from finding a home within me.
Shame from being abused is a heavy load to haul. Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, takes a toll on the human condition. We know that as survivors deal with trauma of the experience, they often find themselves questioning their role:
“Did I cause this?”
“What is my part in this?”
“It’s my fault.”
But if we can help victims, and those healing trauma look at the situation and understand Shame, it might help. I know it has helped me. My ambiguous grief is healing for many reasons, but not being a victim to Shame is tippy top among them.
While I do not wish Shame on anyone, I do wish everyone the ability to distinguish their shame. In doing so, perhaps we can work to extinguish it, and in the process begin to heal our hearts.
When my kids were toddlers and learning to talk, I used to tell them to “use your words” when they wanted to express something. Though those years are now long behind us, I recently found myself encouraging one to “use your words”, when a frustrating situation was spinning in the wrong direction. Then, I heard myself give the same advice today, this time to strangers asking my advice on how to cope with ambiguous grief.
As it turns out, ambiguous grief impacts a lot of people.
Two years ago, I surely didn’t.
In fact, I didn’t even know it existed.
But not anymore.
Now, I know it well, and I am honored to hear from others who are finding themselves seeking to understand their “different” grief, too. Just today alone I was contacted by three people who heard of my story and writings on “AG”, and wanted to connect. They too, were looking for is an understanding of what they were experiencing, and finding that few (if anyone) in their circles seemed to understand, much less feel comfortable wanting to listen and discuss.
Their stories were varied, but all held the commonality of heart-aching loss and deep grief over losing a loved one, but not to death. One to the diagnosis of addiction, one to an unwanted divorce, and another to the discovery of deep intimate betrayal. Though each “entered” into ambiguous grief from a different starting point, all were working to reframe (if possible) their relationships with their living loved one.
When asked what tools help me the most, I always talk about writing. Which can take many forms: journaling, blogging, scratches on paper, or typing notes on your phone.
So, today I suggested they each try writing out their stories so as to seek to find words to express their pain. But none of them thought they could.
“No, It’s too late, I should have started when this first happened.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start, it’s so painful and I’m not a writer.”
“I don’t know if I even have the words to describe this.”
While I understand that not everyone enjoys writing, or believes they are capable (they are!), I invited them to consider doing so for a few reasons:
1) It helps one articulate and process difficult emotions and experiences
3) I reminded them that this isn’t a submission for a Pulitzer Prize – it’s writing FOR THEM! It’s available for public consumption only if they so choose.
I assured them that their story could be theirs and theirs alone. Or when ready, maybe shared with a friend or two, so that they can better understand the experience. Or perhaps they may feel brave enough to share it with their networks on social media, or submit it for publishing in hopes that it may resonate and be of service to someone in need. But for now, just.start.writing.
Recently, a friend wrote about, and bravely publicly shared a candid account of a difficult day. As her mother transitions into residential care for Alzheimer’s Disease, their roles are shifting and the relationship taking a new form. Her story is a beautiful testament to the power of love and the willingness to face, and not run from, ambiguous grief. I invite you to read it and share it, too. We never know who our stories will inspire.
Then, I hope you’ll consider writing your own story. My hope is that the more we share our truths – the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the hideous piles of pain – the more we will be able to heal, see our shared humanity in one another, and help feel well-able to move through the difficult days when they arise.
So pick up a pen, or plunk on your laptop – whatever modality helps you “write”.
Start by writing just for you, without the pressure of sharing it. Don’t worry about structure or punctuation, just do what my kiddos would do, and
Last summer, deep in grief, I was exchanging texts with my dear and wise friend, Robin. We were supporting one another through difficult life transitions, and connected often. During one particular exchange, she signed off with a sentiment unfamiliar to me.
It was a simple salutation, but I didn’t understand it.
“I’m holding space for you…”, she wrote.
Not entirely sure what that meant, and not yet inquisitive enough to ask, I shelved the comment.
Until a few days later, when she wrote it again.
As I understood it, she was telling me in her own way, that she was thinking of me.
Awww. So nice, right?
Wrong. Way wrong.
I finally did ask her what she meant by it, and as it often happens, I started to hear and read about other people using the same term as well.
Now, months later, having space held for me, and holding space in return, I get it.
I truly get it.
I understand that holding space is one of the most important gifts we can give those we love and care about.
It’s far more than just “thinking about you”. It’s seeing a friend in distress and making a commitment to stand grounded in empathy and compassion.
Holding space is quiet and strong, and it doesn’t rush in to try to “fix” anything.
Holding space doesn’t offer advice or make suggestions. It certainly doesn’t compare their pain to yours.
Rather, it acknowledges that a person is experiencing deep, even complicated, feelings. It recognizes that such emotion must be felt and endured, not numbed and buried.
Holding space invites conversation, it listens and affirms. It honors the human experience through the most difficult and trying times. In doing so, it acknowledges our shared humanity. Which feels so “right”, yet is so counterintuitive in today’s fast-paced, multitasking, solution-oriented society.
Here, we want to ease the suffering of our brethren, so we are often quick to offer advice, make suggestions, and even relay stories of others in similar situations, hoping the connection will provide comfort.
It’s hard to see those we care about in pain, so for some, it’s natural to want to help.
For others, seeing loved ones ache is a scary mirror to our own struggle, so we offer nothing and simply go away.
But holding space gives the gift of understanding to our grief and struggle without any pressure to “get over it”, or “move on”. Holding space doesn’t abide by a timeline.
In having this done for me, I have been able to do so for others. In this practice, I have come to learn that holding space is indeed, a sacred act. I am so honored to hold space for others.
Still not sure what this looks like?
Here’s a handy dandy reference guide to get you started:
So, who could you hold space for today? Or perhaps you are someone who would benefit from the love of space being held for you? Reach out and share space, and watch it come back to you.
Lastly, I wonder what our world would be like if we showered one another with this seemingly benign salutation, and really meant it.
I have to believe we would feel as seen as supported as I have. (Thanks, Robin)
Grief is a universal emotional experience. It is felt by humans, and even some animals, when a loved one dies. The Stages of Grief Model by psychiatrist and researcher, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is widely accepted as universal as well. Grief, we have learned, is predictable: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
But what if the common denominator isn’t death? What if instead it was something far-more nefarious that first takes our loved one away? Monsters like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Traumatic Brain Injury or Addiction. These life-altering diagnoses changes our loved one, and often resigned, we watch helpless as they slip further away from the person they once were to us. As the relationship dynamic changes, the grieving process begins. But often, the bereft are unaware. Since their beloved did not die a physical death, their grief doesn’t neatly fit the 5 stages, though they may get lumped in anyway. Instead, their grief goes unnamed and untreated.
So, are you or someone you know currently living with ambiguous grief?
Here are five key indicators that point to “YES”.
1) You have experienced a significant relationship loss, and the person lost is still living.
A Divorce is a common entry-point when the ending of the marriage is unwanted by one partner, or the marriage as it was believed to have been is proven to be false. For those who have lost loved one to intimate betrayal, the perspective changes as the person appears different than previously believed. When reality is fissured by revelations, ambiguous grief can begin. The loved one is still living, but they are no longer who they “used” to be.
(Other examples: A parent’s Alzheimer’s Disease has altered your previous relationship dynamic, Your child is an addict and living on the streets without contact, A family member has rejected you based on the disclosure that you are gay.)
2) You have hope that your lost loved one will return to you as they once were.
Without a physical death, the possibility of a restored relationship can become consuming for those in ambiguous grief. With a warm body there is often hope that life can resume with the relationship as it was once.
(Examples of external hope include: A hope for a medical breakthrough, a loved one entering a recovery/treatment program, a change of heart.)
3) You have a sense of shame or embarrassment over your loss.
Since ambiguous grief is most commonly born from an activating event, such as divorce or diagnosis (Caudle & Sarazin, 2018), the loss can often feel like a personal failure, or could carry a perceived stigma, preventing the grieving party from feeling comfortable disclosing to others.
(Examples include: a parent feeling embarrassed that their child is a drug addict, a wife feeling shame for her husband’s double life, a husband’s embarrassment over his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and his inability to care for her.)
4) You haven’t acknowledged the pain of your loss publicly.
When a loved one is lost to death, there is a cultural understanding that a physical death has occurred, and we know what to do. (Cue the lasagnas in freezers!) Ambiguous grievers are most often unable to articulate their grief, much less hold a ceremony eulogizing their beloved, and therefore receive little to no support. Without sharing your loss with others and mourning in community, your pain can fester and grow.
Some family dynamics believe that “family matters are private”, so we may grow up being told not to share what happens inside the family home. This can show up as shame and embarassment when we suffer heartbreak or loss later in life. Attempting to manage your grief privately prevents others from helping, supporting, and encouraging your healing.
5) You thought you were just really, really sad.
Watching loved ones change, or losing a meaningful relationship will often evoke sadness. The difference is that ambiguous grievers aren’t only experiencing a loss, but a death. While not a physical death, a death nonetheless. The trouble is that many of us associate GRIEF with death and dying in physical form. This excludes other important deaths we endure in life: the death of a dream, a relationship, a job. All of which can cause grief, but is most often not recognized as such.
Naturally, sadness is a part of loss, but it’s important to understand when we are sad, and when we are grieving. Grief is a dull aching pain that often shows up uninvited and hijacks your emotional being. It is said that it’s the last act of love we have to give to those we loved and that tears say what cannot be said
What You Can Do About It
If you are grieving a loss of a loved one still alive, and these five indicators are familiar, you may be experiencing ambiguous grief.
Being able to identify and name this grief is the first step in healing.
Hopefully, as more and more people acknowledge this grief, we will be able to offer important resources of support to those struggling and often suffering their loss alone.
Find support for yourself. A therapist, friends, and/or faith-based groups are often first stops. Additionally, there are many online forums dedicated to supporting grievers through all forms of loss. Find them with a simple google search.
Have you ever hoped for something so hard that it hurt? Maybe you wanted a toy as a kid, a party invitation as a teen, a job offer as an adult. Or perhaps, like me, maybe you were hoping to heal an important relationship.
This kind of hard-hoping physically knots your stomach, churns your insides, and pulls on so many of your emotions it feels like you a never ending ride on a rickety old merry-go-round. This kind of hope is all-consuming.
For people like me living with ambiguous grief, hope gets in the way. Losing someone you love, but not to death, is tricky.
For a solid 8 months after the discovery of my (now ex) husband’s double life, I stood firm in my commitment to understand why he did what he did, and like a dutiful wife, get him the professional help he needed. I hoped that therapy/medicine/meditation/treatment would solve the riddle of WHY, and we could then get on track for healing him*. My hope was that he would do the hard work required to find answers, to understand his hurtful and damaging actions, and “return” to the man he once was. So, knowing he was the only one who could do his piece, and armed with the (wrong) belief that ‘If I didn’t help him, who would?’, I waited and I hoped.
I hoped and hoped and hoped.
For those who lose a loved one to death, hope for a reunion on earth is gone. Grievers by death aren’t waiting for their loved one to call and announce they are seeking treatment, or waiting for grand gestures of apology and working toward amends.
But that’s exactly what makes ambiguous grief so tricky.
Without a physical death, hope remains.
In observing my own behavior during this time, I noticed something: the more I focused hope on him, the faster that rickety, old merry-go-round spun. Then, I would hop off and take a break. Then with a running start, I’d hop back on. Until I had to jump off, again. This is the dysfunctional cycle of hope.
As my cycle breaks grew longer and longer, I realized that it was during this time that I focused on myself. I was just too exhausted and drained to focus my hope on him and his healing, something I realized I had no control over.
I used these breaks like a nap, recharging for what comes next. It was during this time, that I practiced hoping for my future as a single mother.
I took inventory of my life and my interests.
How can I best care for my children?
What are my passions?
What are my gifts?
How can I be of service to others?
How did I want to define my life moving forward?
The time and energy I spent hoping for me changed everything.
Every. Single. Thing.
I was able to detach from the hope of any resolved relationship, to see my marriage for what is was, and even for what it wasn’t (but I thought it was), and to begin to stand on my own again. I didn’t “give up” on hope for him and his healing, I made a conscious decision to stop hoping in his direction.
But, hope is persnickety and would still make surprise drop-ins. When that would happen, I would acknowledge it, and then use mental imagery to move that hope to a box I keep tucked away in the attic of my mind. Then, immediately, I would envision a hope I have for myself, sit with it a moment, and then move on with my day.
Hope keeps us going. But it’s dangerous because sometimes, it shouldn’t. Not when it’s misdirected, and especially not when it’s been misdirected for so long that the rickety old merry-go-round begins to rust. That’s a huge sign that it’s time to hop off. I am so glad I did.
Now, my hope is for my healing, for my post-traumatic growth, and the beautiful and (God willing) long life I have in front of me.
*My friend Catherine wrote a beautiful piece on “The Big Why“. She’s also started a gifting service for those wanting to send comfort to their loved ones in grief. You can check out both here:
Not all ambiguous grief is born out of intention. In some cases like adultery and addiction, one person makes an initial choice in behavior, and that choice can and often does, impact and hurt their loved ones. In other situations, ambiguous grief is born without choice.
No one chooses to be rejected, have dementia, Alzheimer’s, or mental illness. The onset of the aforementioned forces a space where loved ones must cope, adapt and adjust. Whether ambiguous grief is born through the painful decisions made by a loved one, or a life-changing medical circumstance, healing is necessary. The new normal can be incredibly difficult and those in this space are left to cope, often alone.
Whatever non destructive activity that soothes your soul, helps you heal, and steadies yourself: do that.
Get quiet, remember what soothed you as a child. Give thought to what brings you peace as an adult. You are your heart’s own alchemist and the remedy for healing is yours to create.