Ambiguous loss can take many forms, and is very different from a physical death.
Last week I attended a funeral of a 23-year-old young woman who was the daughter of a former co-worker. I have always felt that there is no greater tragedy than the loss of a child—hands down! This was a sudden death, due to substance abuse, so nobody was prepared for the loss. My heart ached for her because I felt, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” But as sad as this was, the family is hopefully able to eventually “move on” after the grieving process (which doesn’t completely end). But what happens when your loved one physically disappears such as with a downed airplane, MIA, kidnapping of a child, or any situation where they disappear with no trace?
Ambiguous loss is just what the name implies. There is no official cause of “death” because you don’t know if they are alive or not. There is no body to mourn. The family is left in limbo, knowing nothing, not being about to grieve, wondering each day where they are, or if they should give up or hold out for hope. And, sometimes against all odds, that lost child turns up alive, so they never want to truly give up, but at the same time, how long do you hold out? It is a terrible existence where you cannot truly grieve or move on. But, another type of ambiguous loss, which most people don’t think of, is watching your loved one descend into the black hole of dementia, or mental illness. In every sense of the word, you have LOST them, if not physically, but their essence—that thing that makes them them—is gone. In the case of dementia or mental illness, the loss is gradual, until they become “somebody you used to know.” It is like invasion of the body snatchers, where they sort of look like your loved one, but have been replaced by a stranger. You can’t really “grieve” in the traditional sense because they are physically alive, but they are not the person you loved. In the case of mental illness there is always HOPE that they may return to “normal” with medication, but either way, acceptance and faith plays a huge part in continuing to go on. I do think ambiguous loss is harder, in some ways, because there is never an actual end, so you can never have a new beginning. You are always in a perpetual state of uncertainty, wondering, and never knowing how to feel.