Spread the love

Grief is complicated and its’s highly personal. I want to talk today about a type of grief that is common, yet rarely discussed.

It is called ambiguous grief or loss.

Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term and has been a leader in the study of this type of grief. Ambiguous loss happens when we watch someone that we love turn into someone else.

Ambiguous grief means that our loved one is still physically here, yet not emotionally present. It is incredibly painful and not talked about often enough.

Examples of ambiguous grief:


Chronic illness

Traumatic brain injury

Medical crisis

Mental illness or emotional crisis

Addiction / substance abuse

Broken relationships

According to the American Academy of Bereavement, “Grieving someone alive is not a conventional form of grief that is often talked about, but it is a real issue. Many factors are outside of the control of the person experiencing them or the person who is watching their loved one suffer.”

Unique Challenges

One of the unique challenges of ambiguous grief is the fact that you often can’t talk about it. People generally feel that they can’t talk about their dad who is depressed or their mom who they are estranged from or their son who is abusing drugs. Likewise, it is difficult to find the space to discuss your sick family member or your child’s medical diagnosis. Some who are dealing with ambiguous loss are grieving a broken relationship. They are grieving the loss of someone who is physically present but not the same person. This happens in cases of divorce or the breakup of a significant loved one. It can also be the case that someone has been betrayed and is grieving the person that they thought they married.

Unfamiliar territory

The thing about ambiguous grief is that we are often thrust into it without any preparation. We are suddenly in unfamiliar territory. Maybe you are dealing with a medical condition, or your spouse has been hospitalized. Maybe Your family member is not mentally functioning at full capacity. Perhaps there is family disconnection due to addiction, trauma or betrayal. We grieve whenever we lose something that we love. Death is not always the cause of loss.

Gathering information / Navigating Systems

In these situations, you are typically learning about a diagnosis, an addiction, a family members dementia or medical condition, or diagnosis. You may be learning to navigate the legal system or figuring out how to financially or emotionally support yourself or another person. If you have a parent who is ill, you may be helping your other parent learn how to navigate hospitals or insurance. If your family member is navigating mental illness, you may be trying to understand their condition, while also figuring out how to take care of yourself or your children. Some are trying to figure out whether their family member will accept help or treatment. If you are or your family member has dealt with substance abuse, you may be researching rehabs, outpatient treatment centers or detox centers while simultaneously grieving the changes in your life.


One of the difficult parts about ambiguous loss is the uncertainty. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

We can feel like we are living in a state of limbo as we are waiting to see if our family members / loved ones get better.

It’s complex

Ambiguous grief is complicated by the fact that this person is still alive, and more than likely we love this person and want to have a relationship with them. It is a rollercoaster of emotions as we often go through feelings of hope, confusion, sadness, anger, fear and powerlessness.

Here are some tips:

  1. Let yourself grieve

Give yourself the space to grieve all of your feelings. What you are experiencing is normal.

2. Seek support

Therapy is a great option when you are grieving an ambiguous loss. Therapy can be a neutral and safe space for you to work through all of your feelings.

3. Be Gentle with yourself

Be kind to yourself as you navigate a difficult, painful and unfamiliar process.

4. Self Care

When navigating ambiguous grief, one of the best things that we can do is focus on our own self-care.

-Take care of your own health.

-Express your feelings to safe people.

-Engage in activities that give your life routine and structure.

-Make room in your life for the things that bring you joy.

Modern Therapy and Wellness is a Therapy practice offering specialty services to individuals and couples. We have specialists in the areas of grief, addiction, Anxiety, life stressors and transitions and couple’s therapy. We provide in person and virtual Therapy in Louisiana. Contact us for a free phone consultation at 504-452-1483.

%d bloggers like this: