What is Ambiguous Loss?

Have you ever felt like you’re grieving something but can’t quite figure out what it is? That’s what ambiguous loss is like. Dr. Pauline Boss coined this term to describe a type of loss that’s full of uncertainty and lacks clear answers. Unlike a traditional loss where it can feel like there is an end, ambiguous loss leaves you hanging in a confusing middle ground. This kind of grief can come from all sorts of life events and understanding it can help you move forward.

Ambiguous loss can be split into two main types:

1.Physical Absence with Psychological Presence

This is when someone is physically missing but they are still very much in your thoughts and emotions. Think of cases like missing persons, soldiers who are missing in action, or people who’ve disappeared without a trace.

2.Psychological Absence with Physical Presence

Here, a person is physically present but emotionally or mentally absent. This happens with conditions like dementia, severe mental illness, addiction, or even being in a coma. The person is there, but they’re not really “there” as you once knew them. It can also happen when children and young people transition to secondary school, college and university.

Life Events That Lead to Ambiguous Loss

Several life events can lead to ambiguous loss, each with its own emotional challenges for adults, children and young people:

  1. Divorce and Separation

Divorce or separation, especially when kids are involved, can create a feeling of ambiguous loss. The family dynamics change, and the uncertainty about future relationships can be really distressing. You’re grieving the loss of the family unit as it once was.

  1. Transitioning to Secondary School

Starting secondary school can be difficult for kids. It’s a time of change where they leave behind the familiar environment of primary school. They might feel a sense of loss for the friends and teachers they no longer see every day, along with the comfort of a known routine. The uncertainty of a new school environment, new peers, and higher academic expectations can create a sense of ambiguity.

  1. Moving on to College or University

Heading off to college or university is a huge milestone, but it can also bring about ambiguous loss. Students can miss their family, college & university friends, and the familiarity of their home & surroundings. They may be excited for new opportunities, but also uncertain about fitting in, academic pressures, and the fear of the unknown.

4. Moving house

When kids move to a new house, it’s not just about changing physical locations. There’s an emotional journey too, one that’s often filled with mixed feelings of excitement and sadness. This transition can bring about a form of ambiguous loss, as children have to leave behind the familiar and navigate the uncertainty of a new environment.

  1. Chronic Illness and Disability

When someone is diagnosed with a chronic illness or becomes disabled, it changes their life in ways you never expected. The future becomes uncertain, and the life you had envisioned is no longer possible, leading to feelings of ambiguous loss.

6.Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

If a loved one is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you experience a unique kind of loss. They’re physically present, but their gradual cognitive decline creates a sense of psychological absence. It’s like losing them bit by bit.

7. Starting a new job

Starting a new job is a significant life change that can evoke feelings of ambiguous loss. Leaving a previous job may mean losing close relationships with former colleagues, a sense of identity tied to that role, under the comfort of known routine. The new job brings its own challenges, expectations, and the pressure to prove oneself, adding to the feeling of uncertainty.

8.Disappearance of a Loved One

When someone you care about goes missing, you’re left in a state of constant limbo. The uncertainty about their fate makes it impossible to find closure, trapping you in a cycle of hope and despair.

9. Immigration and Displacement

Immigrants and refugees often face ambiguous loss as they leave behind their home, culture, and sometimes family members. The physical separation and uncertainty about their future in a new place can be deeply disorienting and grief-inducing.

How Counselling Can Help?

Counselling can be a lifeline for anyone dealing with ambiguous loss. Here’s how it can make a difference: Ambiguous loss is tough because it leaves you without closure and full of uncertainty. Counselling can provide the support and strategies you need to cope. By validating your feelings, helping you recognise the loss, developing coping mechanisms, finding meaning, building resilience, and encouraging support networks, our counsellors and therapists can guide you through this difficult journey. If you’re dealing with ambiguous loss, don’t hesitate to seek out the help you deserve.

Email: fiona@butterfly-counselling.co.uk

Mob: 07460 401639