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How to cope with ambiguous loss and move on without closure

05 Dec 2022 | Written by By Tracy George

Black and white photo with a red rose at its centre

You can’t sleep…

Your whole world has become grey, you feel confused and can’t believe this is happening. 

One day, you’re angry and the next you’re full of fear. You want life to return to how it was, but you know it will never be the same. 

Almost everyone at some point in their life will be affected by an ambiguous loss. So, what is ambiguous loss? A simple definition is a loss without closure

There are two types of ambiguous loss: physical and psychological.

 With physical, the person is no longer there, yet you still have an emotional connection to them. It can be when someone close to you turns up missing or a family member is deployed in a war. In each case, there is no closure because you don’t know if they will ever return.

With psychological ambiguous loss, the friend or loved one is physically present but cognitively or emotionally missing. Examples of psychological loss are Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness, addiction, or traumatic brain injury. They are physically present, but no longer the same psychologically.

Because ambiguous loss is often sudden, has no closure, and can affect our identity, it can be disorientating. It can be difficult to know how to handle the loss, and we’re often left not knowing what to do or how to cope. But the positive side is that we can become more resilient from experiencing it.

 How do you get through ambiguous loss? 

During a five-year period, I experienced three incidents of ambiguous loss.  Through trial and error and assistance within my community, I found ways to get through them.

It wasn’t easy, but when the pandemic came around, I was much more resilient and able to navigate all the loss that it entailed. My hope for you is that by using some or all these suggestions, it will be easier for you to rebuild your life following a loss of this nature.

Be present with your feelings

After the initial shock, your emotions become a raging, uncontrollable mess and can spiral into hopelessness one minute and hopefulness the next. You may be unable to stay level-headed and want to push your emotions away. 

Taking the time, even amid the chaos, to allow yourself to grieve, sit with your fear or anger and make friends with your emotions rather than denying them is crucial. It helps you react less and keeps the stress from affecting you as much physically.

Maintain structure in your life

One of the best things you can do is to continue your regular daily routine.  It’s tempting to stay in bed or go overboard and do too much due to anxiety or sadness.  However, making sure that you exercise, eat right, and go to bed at the same time keeps you focused on yourself. 

This is no time to be a superhero

You may be the type that thinks, with a lot of courage, you can get through it alone. However, trying to handle it by yourself can lengthen the time it takes to recover and result in you being isolated in an unhealthy way.

Some ambiguous loss such as divorce, mental illness, or addiction in the family can make you feel ashamed or guilty. You may feel like it’s better not to reach out for help. But research shows that reaching out can keep you from becoming stuck or falling into depression. Here are a few ways you can connect with others:

  • Going to a grief counsellor, somatic therapist or family counsellor can help you make sense of what happened and move toward acceptance.
  • Join a support group centred around the loss you are facing. By being around others that have gone through or are going through the same thing, you won’t feel so alone.
  • Talking to a close friend, your church pastor, or a spiritual counsellor can be comforting and ease your feelings of despair.

Resist the urge to control everything

Ambiguous loss can make you feel like you’ve lost control. You may begin to feel like if you don’t control everything in your life, something worse will happen. 

This is a normal reaction, but the need to manage everything can leave you exhausted and keep you from being open to the changes you may need to make. 

Allowing others to present solutions and offer care can free you to take better care of yourself and initiate changes in your life.

Finding meaning in the loss

It takes some time to get to this stage.  Usually, you become so caught up in getting through your loss and grief, that there seems no way to find meaning in it. In time, when you have begun to accept the loss, even if it will never make sense to you, the desire to make the loss meaningful surfaces. 

Many causes have been started from someone experiencing an ambiguous loss. Everything from breast cancer awareness campaigns to gun control laws have been put in place to help others or raise funding because it helped the person make sense of what happened and benefit others that are going through the same thing.

You may, or may not, want to start a campaign or try to change a law.  But, from personal experience, I can say that volunteering or helping others through what you went through begins to soften the blow and precipitates a feeling like there was a reason for it.  

You will get through this

It may feel like your heart will never mend, that life will never be the same, and honestly, life usually doesn’t go back to how it was.  But, if you take little steps, a day at a time, I know you can get through it, and come back stronger and more resilient than you were.

By using some or all the suggestions here, the grey will begin to disappear, and life will become liveable again. One day, you will be able to stand back and see, even though you still have the memory of your loss, that life is still worth living.  Be gentle with yourself.

Let us know in the comments below any special tips or things you do that others may benefit from. We’d love to hear from you.

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