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  • Rachel March, LCSW

Ambiguous Grief: Loss Beyond Death and Dying

It’s OK to grieve, even if someone didn’t die.

Have you ever experienced a loss but someone told you it wasn’t a big deal? Maybe you thought you should have been able to move on but you struggled to resolve the loss? You could have been facing what we therapists call ambiguous grief, or grieving any loss that is not related to a death. This can be difficult to recognize as it can take many forms. Examples include grieving a divorce or a relationship ending, a job loss, an unexpected move, a new diagnosis or anytime the situation you are facing turns out drastically different from your expectations.

Kenneth Doka, a therapist specializing in grief, reminds us “It's probably important to acknowledge and recognize that grief is a reaction to loss. We often confuse it as a reaction to death ... Whenever we experience an attachment and we experience loss in that attachment, grief becomes the natural way we respond to that.”

That can be eye opening - we can grieve the loss of any attachment? Not getting an expected promotion? A devastating diagnosis right after retirement? A difference in how I expected things to turn out and how they actually turned out?

All ambiguous grief.

A major source of ambiguous grief is the loss of things as we expected them to be. Any change in our expectations can cause us to feel powerless or helpless or even shame, embarrassment and self-doubt. Maybe we always thought we’d follow a certain career path, or we’d be more financially secure by now, or the dreams we had of a family didn’t turn out as expected. Because of the unresolved nature of ambiguous grief, these feelings can come up again and again over time.

So now that we know it exists, how do we handle ambiguous grief? Some clients tell me just knowing that ambiguous grief exists, putting a name to this feeling, normalizes it and validates the feeling. People with this type of pain may hear that they need to “move on” or “get over it” but knowing we are not alone in not being able to just “get over” a non-death loss can help.

It is important to create a space for our feelings. It is okay to feel sadness, anger, disappointment, crushed or betrayed when facing loss and change. These feelings are completely normal. We can shift our thinking from either/or thinking to both/and thinking. I can feel both sad that something didn’t go as planned and hopeful that things will change in the future. There is more than one right answer, two things can be true at the same time. Allow space for both/and, not either/or. And ask yourself, Who was I before? Who was I when this loss first began? Who am I now as I live with this loss? Who do I want to be?

Acknowledging the grief that goes along with loss and change allows space for our feelings and helps us tolerate uncertainty. This doesn't take away the pain of the loss but can help us to validate and normalize our feelings and move toward acceptance.

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