Ambiguous Grief: How to Cope
Many kinship caregivers experience something called ambiguous grief. This is a specific type of grieving that comes as a reaction to a loss that has no closure. Without facts or information to support your understanding of the loss, this can leave you feeling lost, stuck, and searching for answers.
Grief researchers have identified two types of ambiguous grief:
When the body is present but the mind isn’t
The first is when someone is physically present but psychologically absent. Examples of this type of loss include severe mental illness, addiction, or significant cognitive impairments like dementia.
Though the person is physically there, they are not who they used to be. This cognitive dissonance between who you remember the person to be and who they are now can be very jarring and upsetting.
When the person is gone but they’re still on your mind
The second type is when a living person is physically absent but still psychologically present in your mind. This may include losses like a loved one who has gone missing, a baby in a closed adoption, when a loved one is incarcerated, or a difficult breakup where there’s no contact between you and your ex.
It can be hard to navigate and move through the grief process when you don’t have answers, and you may even feel frozen in time as you wait for information that may not ever come.
WAYS TO COPE WITH AMBIGUOUS GRIEF
The goal of grief is not “How do I stop being sad?” but rather, “How do I carry this and still live my life in a meaningful way?” There is no one right way to grieve, nor is there a prescription for getting through it, but there are some things that many people find helpful during the process.
It is helpful to be able to label your grief as “ambiguous”. Naming it gives it a sense of normalcy and reassures you that your reactions and feelings are legitimate.
Accept the uncertainty
Don’t arbitrarily create certainty by inventing answers; rather, learn to live with the idea that you may never know the full story. Accepting uncertainty may feel frightening at first, but it can help you find meaning and ultimately truly acknowledge the loss in a way that allows you to move forward.
Make your own closure
You may not have a date to memorialize, such as a date of death, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still use a tradition, ritual, or some other meaningful action to create the closure you’re lacking. For instance, you could write a letter to your loved one, put it in an envelope, and then toss it in a fireplace or on a barbecue. Or you could choose a different date, like their birthday or a favorite holiday, to remember them in a special way.
Allow yourself to feel all the feelings
Not having answers may make you want to “delay” grieving. It’s okay to keep hoping for closure, but in the meantime allow yourself to feel the grief. Whether or not you acknowledge the grief, it still happens. This doesn’t mean you’re “giving up” or “abandoning” your loved one.
Find a support group
Whether you find a support group online or in real life, it’s important to find people who understand the type of loss you are going through. Talking to other people who know what ambiguous grief is like can help immensely, both in dealing with the practical issues and the complex feelings.
Take a break
With an ambiguous loss, you may be constantly surrounded by reminders of your loss, like photos of your loved one or clothing left behind. It can be healing to take a break and go somewhere new—somewhere you don’t associate with them.
Be aware of triggers
Processing grief isn’t a straight line, even in typical situations, and ambiguous grief can be even more of an emotional roller coaster. Grief often comes in waves, ebbing and flowing, and it’s not uncommon for a wave of grief to be triggered by something in your environment, like an anniversary date or a song or something else that reminds you keenly of your loss. Being aware of these triggers can help you prepare yourself and deal with them more effectively.
A powerful way to deal with unresolved (and unresolvable) feelings is to meditate. You can sit quietly, do a guided grief meditation online, or do a type of moving meditation, like yoga or hiking. The important thing is to find a way to clear your mind that works for you.
Enjoy a simple pleasure every day
It can be easy to get caught up in trying to find answers, to the point where the grief can feel all-consuming. It’s important to take time every day to do something that makes you happy. Eat a cupcake, go for a walk in the sunshine, buy yourself a bouquet of flowers, dance to a favorite song!
Seek outside help
Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself getting stuck in the grief process. If your grief is preventing you from being able to effectively live your life, it may be time to ask for help. Loved ones can be vital sources of support, or turn to a professional grief counselor. These mental health workers are trained to help you navigate these complicated feelings and support you through the process.
Don’t judge your grief
Understand that grieving is a normal part of being human, and everyone will experience it differently. However your process works is OK. Grief isn’t an illness. It’s not a sign something went wrong. It’s actually a sign something is going right-- It’s a sign that you loved them.