Ambiguous Loss: I totally understand that concept. I have an adult son who has been battling mental illness for almost 20 years. He has been hospitalized numerous times, seems to recover and lead a productive, relatively “normal” life for a while, only to “relapse”, which actually implies he was ever free of his mental illness, which he has never really been. He is schizophrenic and is now on medication, but does not comply with the things he needs to do to function in the world. It is especially difficult because he lives in NJ and I live in Georgia. However, I have tried to get him into program after program, with therapists, and case managers only to have him reject the help that is freely offered him. He has been homeless for years, yet keeps turning down offers of housing from his treatment programs. I actually wrote about ambiguous loss in my blog, A Woman Speaks Out, back in 2014. When a loved one physically dies, there is a period of mourning that eventually gives way to some sort of acceptance and healing. But when your child becomes, “someone you used to know”, it is particularly difficult because how can you mourn somebody that has not died? It is easy and anybody who deals with a loved one with dementia or especially mental illness can understand this concept. I mourn the adorable boy he was, the young man with promise, the son who was always on the same wavelength with me, the boy with the great sense of humor. I am always waiting for “the other shoe to drop” and wonder when the next crisis will be. I grieve my boy, who I speak to periodically and actually sounds fairly “normal” on the phone. But, there simply is no reasoning with him about anything he does not want to do. It is a constant battle for me to disassociate myself on some days, just so I can have some sort of happiness. I am in mourning every single day and sometimes I wonder how things would be if he passed away. God forbid, but I could grieve and then begin to heal. But then I hate myself for even thinking the unthinkable. When there is ambiguous loss, you grieve the loss of the essence of your loved one; you mourn every single day, some days less then others. You live in a roller coaster world where one day you may get some good news from his therapists and then suddenly there is no movement or he goes backward. One step forward, two steps back and then you often have to start from scratch. This happens over and over with no relief in sight. You cannot talk to most people about your “loss” because they do not understand. You cannot constantly bombard people with the latest horror story because they do not want to hear it. You have to put on a happy face, when underneath there is about 20% of my brain that cannot ever, ever, be happy. There is that part of me with a broken heart that I have to hide lest I be considered a “negative” person. And then there is the loss of hope—the feeling that nothing will ever get better. That hopelessness is deadly because it leads to depression on my part. I know that acceptance is the key to everything, but this is often a bitter pill to swallow and it is hard to accept that your child is gradually disappearing before your very eyes.
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.