Coping with Ambiguous Grief

Oftentimes, when we hear the word grief we picture the loss of a loved one. But grief can cut much deeper than losing someone or something that is special to us. When exploring through the concept of grief, you begin to see the multitude of layers that it entails. 

A layer of grief that I have grown passionate about is ambiguous grief.

This kind of grief focuses on the loss of something or someone that is not always due to a death. Ambiguous grief is a loss that has no closure and may not have a clear answer; this can make it more difficult for individuals to know how to cope.

Individuals may struggle to identify the appropriate feelings and emotions they are experiencing, since they often do not realize that they’re going through the grieving process. With any type of loss, the first realization is that grieving may never end. While this can be a daunting reality to take on, there are ways that we can process and cope through the ever changing emotions and feelings associated with grief.  

Ambiguous loss can show up in several different ways such as in:

  • Parental relationship/friendship
  • Affairs
  • Motherhood
  • Identity
  • Financial security
  • Military
  • Adoption
  • Immigration
  • Marginalization
  • Chronic Illness
  • Terminal Illness
  • Addiction

Strategies for Ambiguous Loss

While I could go on and on about the topic of grief, here are a few of my favorite strategies to utilize with people who are experiencing ambiguous loss:

Sitting with the uncomfortable emotions.

There are a multitude of emotions that a person can be feeling when processing through their unique situation. It is not only important for us to name the emotion/feeling that they are experiencing, but to also sit with these uncomfortable feelings.

This first step can be the hardest to take in the grieving process as many people will attempt to avoid or minimize what they are feeling to lessen the pain.

Writing a closure letter.

Due to ambiguous loss often having no closure and no relation to a death, a closure letter can be helpful for people to process through their emotions related to the situation.

For example, if a child is experiencing the loss of a parental/caregiver relationship, they may want to write a letter of all the things they wish they could say to this person or the ways this person has hurt them. If comfortable, it can be helpful for the person to imagine they are sitting with this person and read the letter aloud to release any feeling they are holding on to.

Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Techniques.

Anxiety can be at an all time high when going through ambiguous grief, which ultimately leads to feelings of uncertainty, loss of control, and dissociation to cope with the emotions associated with this grief.

I find it helpful in these times of uncertainty to find a quiet space, put on any type of music that soothes you, and do breathing exercises. As you enter into a calmer state of mind, it can be helpful to add in some affirmations. Some affirmations that I lean towards include:

  • “I am doing the best I can with the resources I have.”
  • “It is ok to take time to grieve.”
  • “In my sadness, I love myself.”
  • “I allow myself to sit through this pain.”
  • “I am brave enough to stand up again.”

“Re-Story” grief.

This Narrative Therapy technique can be really helpful when working with people experiencing any form of loss as it does not necessarily “erase” the grief from a person’s life but focuses on not letting grief continue to take control of their life. While grief may be something that always lingers in the background, it does not have to be the “star” of the show forever.

Written by Natalie Queen on February 1, 2023.

I graduated from University of Phoenix in 2019 with a BS in psychology. I took some time off to spend time with my two sons before starting my journey to getting my Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy from Capella Univeristy. I was previously a preschool teacher and was often the teacher that offered support to families and children throughout the school who were experiencing difficulties at home. I loved being able to help create activities and interventions that not only benefitted the child but also provided the tools and support for the family unit. I am looking forward to utilizing my skills and gaining more experience working as a BHIS provider and interning as a counselor!

Get to know Natalie a little better.

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