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.
For proactive practices to healing, check out the ReRooting Tool Kit at www.riseuprooted.net/rerooting-tools/