Ambiguous Grief: grieving someone who is still alive (part 2)

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

For further articles on these topics:

A while ago, we wrote an article on 'ambiguous grief' aka grieving someone who is still alive. To keep it to reasonable internet reading length, we really only told half the story.

If you know anything about Pauline Boss, the ambiguous grief guru, you know she talks about two (and really more like two and a half) types of ambiguous grief. One is what we covered last time - grieving someone who is physically still in your life, but who is 'psychologically absent'. This means they are no longer the person they used to be (think dementia, addiction, traumatic brain injury, etc) If you are looking for more on that, you can check out that first post here.

But Pauline Boss talks about a second, equally as significant, type of ambiguous loss - grieving someone who is physically absent.  From grieving break-ups and divorces to runaways, incarceration, immigration, foster care, estrangements, military deployments, adoption, and others. The list of these types of losses is long, so it is no surprise we get questions about them all the time.

Pauline Boss describes them saying they occur when someone is 'physically absent but psychologically present'. By psychologically present she means that the person left to grieve is thinking about the absent person all the time. They are worried, they are distracted, devastated, sad, and stressed, and on and on.  

These losses are open-ended, and that is in large part what Boss explores. The nature of these losses is that they create a unique stress response because of the uncertainty - a person is "gone, but not for sure". It is often unclear if or when the person will return, leaving those grieving confused and sometimes consumed by the loss.

The safety of the missing person is frequently unknown. This leaves the grieving person left fluctuating between moments of hope and moments of feeling completely hopeless. This ongoing uncertainty, according to Boss's research of over forty years, shows that this can "prevent resolution of the loss, and freezes the grief process, paralyzing couple and family functioning".

As with all grief, there are no universals and there are certainly many, many cases when this doesn't occur. But the risks are increased because it becomes harder to use some of the coping strategies that work in grieving death-related losses. People often struggle to adapt or reconstruct their identity. They struggle to find meaning when circumstances or facts are unknown. 

This can be complicated further by the fact that society doesn't have accepted norms or rituals around these losses. People don't often don't know how to acknowledge grief when someone has died, and they certainly don't know how to acknowledge and support it in the cases of adoption or incarceration or almost anything else on the list.

The uncertainty, according to the research of Boss and her colleagues, increases the likelihood for hypervigelence (when your senses are oversensitive), anxiety, anxious attachment (when you are overly clingy and attached to a person, because you worry they will disappear), and symptoms of depression.

If you've been this, it might sound familiar - every time the phone rings you startle, thinking on some level it could be news about your loved one. You can't focus because you are fixated on their safety. You extend your worries to other's you are attached to and to yourself. You obsessively feel like you can or should be doing more or doing something differently, or you obsessively think they should be doing more or doing something different.

And to boot, sometimes this type of ambiguous loss is stacked on other types of ambiguous losses. Maybe someone has physically disappeared from your life because they couldn't handle your grief after a death. Now you are left grieving both. Maybe someone with an addiction disappears for days or weeks on end, and then they do show up they are 'psychologically absent', leaving you managing both types of ambiguous loss. 

I hear you screaming, "Yes! This is me! I don't need you to explain it, I need you to tell me what to do about it!" I know, I know. The good news is, Pauline Boss has some concrete, evidence-informed guidelines.

The bad news: there are no quick or easy fixes. Though she creates a nice little checklist of six tasks that can help in building resiliency, they are each an ongoing process and flexible, depending on your needs and the situation.  She suggests those dealing with an ambiguous loss should:

  • Finding Meaning
  • Adjusting Mastery
  • Reconstructing Identity
  • Normalizing Ambivalence
  • Revising Attachment
  • Discovering New Hope

Easy enough, right? Hmmm . . . . maybe not so easy.

First, let's consider what the goals are here. Boss tells us the unique challenge of this particular loss is that it is uncertainty that is ongoing and a lack of closure. Therefore, she says the goals of the above is to help people better learn to live with that uncertainty, rather than trying to resolve the situation. Since there is no clarity or solution, you have to learn to cope with that reality.

Each of her six guidelines help with that.  If you want to check these out in depth, check out Boss's recent book "Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work With Ambiguous Loss". For now I just want to mention a couple of highlights. 

First, Boss thinks we can increase the flexibility of our thinking to help us cope with uncertainty when we learn to live with "two truths". There are countless instances where she says we think we need to either be one thing or another - hopeful or hopeless, optimistic or pessimistic. There are times where we limit what our identity looks like by believing it must be all or nothing. Instead, Boss says that living with ambiguous loss means finding more flexibility.

For instance, one might consider thoughts like: John is both missing and still part of our family.  I believe Jim is dead and I am hopeful Jim is not dead.  I both a wife and no longer a wife.  I both want certainty and don't want Jen to be dead. 

Boss further tells us that many things that will help us are relational interventions. This might mean considering our identity now. Who am I now? Who is my family now? What are our roles? Is my identity more fluid that I once knew? What does it mean to be a good mother now compared to in the past? Looking at identity roles can help in finding ways to cope with the present, rather than being fixed in an identity that worked only in the past. 

She encourages us to reconsider mastery, suggesting that we often want answers and clarity, but it serves us to remember that sometimes there are no answers. Hard as it is to sit with, the world isn't always fair and just, suffering is universal, and the temptation to blame (others and ourselves) to that we can create a sense of certainty is often inaccurate and doesn't help us cope. Instead, she advocates using techniques to tolerate these realities of the world by focusing on taking care of oneself - yoga, meditation, and whatever self-care helps you just be. 

Boss suggests we also get real about our emotions. She thinks we need to admit the pressure we feel to 'get over' things and acknowledge that there are some things we never get over, we just learn to live with them. She encourages us to learn the difference between emotions and behaviors.

She gives us permission to feel whatever we feel without judgment while becoming aware that we have control to make sure those feelings don't turn in to actions or behaviors. Even though I might think no one understands what I am going through, I still have the control to reach out to others anyway to avoid isolation and find support I never would have predicted. 

Finally, she encourages us seeking ways we can both hold on and let go. She allows a space for grieving the ongoing and uncertain loss, while also making space for new attachments and hopes, being open and communicative about both.

She reminds us that we can redefine hope, meaning we can become more comfortable and balanced in our ambiguity. This is no easy feat, but redefining our concepts of fairness and justice, finding space to laugh as the absurdities of the situation, and embrace hope where we can find it.

It all sounds so simple in a nice little list, when in reality is is long and complex and you may find a counselor is the best thing to help you through some of her suggestions. Alternately, some of this might already resonate and you might be thinking about where you can implement some of these ideas.

Wherever you are, leave us a comment to let us know your thoughts about this type of ambiguous grief and how to cope. 

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

34 Comments on "Ambiguous Grief: grieving someone who is still alive (part 2)"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Ceci  July 17, 2022 at 7:36 am Reply

    Thankful to have found this article.
    Here a v detailed long post about my experience of open relationship and hurt trust and persistent living memory.

    The relationship with Lucas ended a few months ago. We had an open relationship where we would see other people, but where we were primary partners. This was based on trust, which he was very fond of: he would tell me that we needed firstly to have trust, to communicate openly. This was very important to him, to trust each other.

    So I knew finally I could trust him. It was beautiful to finally feel 100% open also with my heart again with someone after my last breakup which had left me hurt (Lucas knew).
    To feel safe in the relationship we would remind each other multiple times a week that we wanted to be true, we would talk about what we were experiencing/feeling and be lovely with each other and make sure to care for each others’feelings in this. I was so happy. This went on for a few months.

    Then one evening he came over to “talk” as we always did. We had a nice eve which also felt complex to me as he talked about someone he had newly met; but with an open relationship this would happen sometimes, so I wasn’t worried. Then in the morning after sex he told me: “I want us to take a break from our relationship, and after the break I want us to be only friends”.
    I didn’t understand this, I had no clue what was going on. I was in shock. I asked him for explanation and he told me to not worry because yes he had talked about us to this other woman and that we are still primary partners. He left my house with a big smile on his face and visibly excited.

    After that morning I wrote him to talk, as always, as we were on each other side. And I was confused. He carelessly simply told me he didn’t wanna talk to me. He seemed in a good mood and happy, he said he had no reason to see me nor talk to me.
    He coldly demanded from me that his boundaries be respected.
    I was shattered.
    After a few weeks of me trying to talk to him, he told me if I ever see him in the streets to not say hi, he doesn want to have anything to do with me.

    I discovered later that all along in the last month of relationship based on trust, I was the only one being true: he had met someone he had fallen in love with and hid that from all our “true-talks”, for a month.
    I am grieving the trust and the relationship still: the shock of that morning still feels “real” after many months.
    The break up was so unexpected and sudden, my immense trust toyed with, my feelings taken advantage of. But not only I was grieving that, also just simply missed him.

    And the worst is -while he is still happily in his relationship- I’m still stuck there, in that moment that morning and in “our” relationship. Feels like my mind didn’t have the time to adjust, to comprehend, to fathom how someone could do that, and I still think the relationship is there, existing, just in a place I cannot reach. I feel like time is not passing.
    I am stuck in that morning, in that event.

    For 2 months after that morning I couldn’t sleep. If I would fall asleep, I would be suddenly woken up by feelings like intense shards of anxiety, I would get painful flashbacks in my sleep where my body would shiver, experience lack of air, body spasms related to the memory of that event.
    I didn’t find enough reasons to eat for a few weeks.
    Night and day had blurred together. I would just stay in bed whole day panicking, crying, and not seeing why I should go out. I would fall in trances of daydreaming, longing not only for our bodies together, the hugs, but for that safe space I knew well, longing to go back to that place that hold the comfortable feeling of trusting and be trusted. I could reach that place by closing my eyes and navigating there.

    Physically my body is now recovering, I started sleeping and doing better but my mind is still stuck in that event, in that place during our relationship that felt so true and felt like such a safe space, that my mind doesn’t want to leave still.

    Anyone else dealing with this sort of “splitting” or “time-freezing” on top of the grief?

    I came to the conclusions that Memories, -differently from concrete events- are something that exists in a parallel realm, where time does not pass as it passes in the real world. By now I think I might never be able to leave that place in my memory: that place of trust, full with feelings of wellbeing, belonging and comfort. I will always be there, though just not physically.

    What do you think? Can you relate with a similar feeling of “being trapped in a memory” and do you even think that is entrapment? Or is it part of life that we want to find refuge in a good memory?

    Do you think is possible to create a similar memory in real life again while also still being present in that memory?
    I feel like nothing can compare to that. Even if I started dating again, I don’t see a place shaping that is even remotely comparable. I feel the pressure from society and the world at large and my conditioning, to having to let go of this memories, I must “move on” and forget, but I feel like maybe that’s not how things will go for me.

    Maybe forgeyting and letting go is not the only way, maybe is fine to stay in this memory -as long as maybe I create a perspective on it (I still don’t).

    Or is it really wrong and dangerous? I do feel like knowing that I can go back to this place in my memory is stopping me from experiencing things in real life now, because that place doesn’t exist anymore.
    But it’s also showing me what I CAN and WANT to have in a relationship, so that now my standards are set super high.

    Confused and split.

    • Anonymous  October 15, 2022 at 9:13 pm Reply

      I think the “living in a memory” is a safe space that you are seeking. Sometimes people don’t understand how much some of us need that safe space and, then, when we get that safe space provided, it’s catastrophic to lose. The catastrophic loss is not just a regular breakup. It’s a primal loss. Not sure how to fix it, but I get it. So living in the memory as if it’s real sometimes is something soothing. Sort of like wearing an ankle brace sometimes when you have a weak ankle. I feel for your grief because I live that myself.

    • j  December 19, 2022 at 9:34 am Reply

      Hi Ceci,
      Your feelings are understandable. I’ve also been going through a family relationship loss of my sister. So it’s a double whammy as she was a best friend and a sister.

      Anyway, it’s very understandable to feel frozen in time. I often feel in a state of shock even though two years has passed. I’m trying to do healthy things and see things from beauty — appreciating the small things we have no control over, like when it snows or rains.

      Your trust was shattered and now you are putting the fragments back together. Again, it’s very understandable. Look at each piece of “glass” and determine what it means and if you want to keep it in your new “self window”. You can still be you with new pieces of glass taken in and dropping the pieces of glass that don’t serve you any more. You are still you and that wasn’t taken away!

      One fragment sounds like you want to have a relationship. Why not keep that one? It doesn’t mean you have to have the same kind or take the same approach next time. Ask yourself what your new self values in relationships. The answers should be different for dating relationships, long-terms dating relationships and life partner relationships.

      The situation you shared was out of your control! Now, you do have control of letting go at your own pace — don’t rush this step:)

      Even though you are “caught” in this time warp right now, it won’t last forever. The time warp provides to you the safety you need to shelter, console and reaffirm that you love yourself enough to take time to heal. So, you might feel like you aren’t “living life” while you are in limbo, but you really are. This is your subconscious mind putting a pause on things that are secondary right now. You will heal!!
      Time warps are good for rediscovering or finding new interests, as well as identifying all the good things you bring into relationships. This self-assessment is also worthwhile to explore.

      Signs that you are healing are your ability to sleep better and eat better since the situation occurred. I’m sorry you are going through this and so many women have been through various versions of this deceptive lack of honesty. Truly, in the years to come, you will look back on this “clown” who actually handed you a rose when he left your life. It just doesn’t feel like it right now.

      I’ve been there too …

  2. Mary  February 10, 2021 at 7:38 am Reply

    Thank you for posting this article again. I’ve returned to it several times since the loss of my spouse 2 years ago. I’ve found the secondary losses and ambiguous losses that are associated with her death much more stressful and anxiety-provoking than her death! Does that sound strange?

  3. Mary  February 2, 2021 at 11:08 pm Reply

    My son who is now sixty one was diagnosed with kidney cancer stage four. He had one kidney removed and was told a couple of months later to get his affairs in order. He decided to try alternative measures instead of chemo and is in his third year but declining. After the first year he decided to move to another town about two and a half hours away. In addition to all of the grief of knowing I would be loosing my son to cancer, I had to deal with not seeing him regularly and being able to help my daughter in law care for him. I have been so conflicted in my emotions, feeling fear, anger, anxiety. Not knowing when he will die, praying that he won’t die but trying to be realistic. My husband died of cancer years ago and I remember the “ I will beat this” attitude which kept me off balance because the doctor said he was terminal. I am eighty one years old and do not have the support of friends who have moved away or passed away. My other children I realized after reading your article cannot give me what I need as they have not experienced this sort of loss. I am so grateful for finding this sight and reading your article. I know that I will be able to deal with this in between place that I am in. I have grieved for all this time never knowing what will happen. Your article has saved my sanity and has given me a way to work through this very difficult time. Thank you

  4. Crystal  November 28, 2020 at 5:57 pm Reply

    I sobbed with relief when i read this article. Im also going to read the book… i have 2 beautiful children who where adopted. I last saw them just over 4 years ago. And i struggle to put into words how i feel, but somehow this article did just that, so thank you from the bottom of my heart to all involved. I Struggle to make sense of how i feel and always finding new ways to feel and scenarios that could or could not happen. So i can see this method of grieving might help. Im willing to give anything a go at this point. Would love to hear from people that can relate ? I find it helps. Take care everyone and keep, keeping on. U are loved, needed and here for a reason ❤

    • IsabelleS  November 30, 2020 at 11:12 am Reply

      Crystal, I’m so glad to hear that this article brought you some comfort. I hope it has shown you that, no matter what, you’re not alone. All the best to you!

  5. Chris  September 13, 2020 at 9:13 am Reply

    I’m weeks into the unexpected breakup of an almost 3 year relationship. Every day is a struggle of trying to juggle life and my day-to-day needs while thinking about her pretty much all my waking hours. Contact has been cut, reminders hidden away, but she’s always there. Thinking about her, missing her, and wishing I wasn’t still so in love. I’m currently seeing a therapist a few times a week, trying to be active, trying to see friends. But it’s a struggle that I’m fighting from morning until night, with mornings being there hardest. I love her and miss her like heck, and I know this is something that takes time and is hard, but all I want is to just not care about her anymore. I just want to be past it. I try to think of the negative things, try to keep in mind the times I was upset or unhappy in the situation. But I truly was in a place of mind where the good dwarfed the negative. Things were stressful near the end, but life under COVID was such a major factor in that. And it felt like she didn’t want to hear that. That somehow the things stressing us out were solely the relationship and not anything to do with our lives being turned on their head and things across the board being drastically different, uncertain, and stressful. I’m so incredibly sad for her loss. She meant the world to me and still does, and every day I wish she didn’t. I just want to forget her and not care.

  6. Karen  August 16, 2020 at 11:02 am Reply

    i havent seen anything to deal wigh my experience. My husband was 25
    Years older than l. I retired to tske care of him. He had many phydical illnesses including what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimers. Earlier he was s brilliant, dynamic man and incredibly loving generous partner. I loved him tremendously. I also cared for him alone as his children were dealing with serious illnesses. My children lived far away. My siblings seldom called and neither did his grandchildren. I also was caring for my sick, old mother, bringing my husband along as i could never leave him. He died last July at home.
    Everyone gathered and i told them that i would be going away for awhile to i font know where. I needed to be away from our home which he lovingly built and we were in 24/7 for years.
    I kept myself in my bedroom for over 2 weeks in a trance. My family was outraged that i didnt have a wake and funeral. That was my husband’s strong directive: no funeral at all.
    I followed his wishes which was part of his family’s tradition. I had him cremated and have his ashes. Someday i will spread them over the ocean acording to his wishes.
    That brings me to my issue. I met s man, a widower, about 3 weeks after his death. He reached out after comments i made on a caregiver’s
    Website. His wife died 4 months earlier. We spoke on line and soon went to lunch. It turned into the relationship i now have with him. The results were chaos with the family. Vicious judgment and suppositions that i knew him from before despite the fact that he lives 250 miles away. He made a big effort to see me. We just clicked with so much suffering we both experienced before our beloved spouses died. They were not themselves for a long, long time. We both lovingly and tenderly cared gor them in their lifetime. I never dreamt of a new partner. But i did long to feel happy and peaceful again. The shape and details were never evident. But now i am both of those.
    My family came around eventually. Unfortunately my mother died 6 months later still furious and disappointed in me. She thought that i must have known this man before. She felt i didn’t honor my husband and shouldnt have gollowed his wishes.
    It remains a big pain for me that my mom died with us angry at each other. I feel at peace with my husband’s passing because he was nearly 90, had a good life and a good life with me. I know he wanted me to be happy which i am. But i know many people judge me. Its little uncomfortable but being happy is more important. I’d be interested in feedback if anyone can relate. Please be kind in your comments. Thank you.

  7. samantha  March 23, 2020 at 7:36 am Reply

    I forgot to mention – that even though I was the only woman that stuck by him over the last 12 yrs and the fact his family knew how I felt and what i had been through, upon his injury and then death I was not given any acknowledgment by his family. Even his friends who knew of our history did not give me any condolences as a widow or significant other. I wasnt even allowed to retrieve the things i had given him or to go into his place after he died just to sit there and talk to him or to find the ring he had given me and i had given back. there was no respect for the role I had played in his life despite our turmoil. Had we been married they would have had to have given me something but instead almost out of spite they gave me nothing. that make it pretty damn hard to get through too.

  8. samantha  March 23, 2020 at 7:18 am Reply

    my grief is of many types and has consumed me for 12 yrs now. I was consumed by what turned out to be a psychopathic relationship which started as the best thing that had ever happened to me that then morphed into several years of confusion and denial and then discovery followed by intense turmoil marked by emotional abuse, humiliation ,and conditioning and ultimately abandonment. Mine was a classic psychopathic relationship cycle from beginning to end. However, it took me years after being abandoned to figure out what had happened. This was before the current wide array of information about malignant narcissists or psychopaths or whatever name you want to land on (cluster b, personality disorders) and the long list of traits that destine most anyone in a personal relationship to be totally emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastated.. I can now apply and understand the long list of terms – love bombed, trauma bond, gaslighted, negative reinforcement, crazy making, conditioned, stonewalled and as it culminated in abandonment I suffered a total loss of self worth, loss of identity – the loss of everything I was. And as I pieced it together I came to see the ease of which he completely and utterly betrayed me. And I realized the apathy of those around me that benefited marked by a lack of loyalty or compassion by those around me.. I educated myself hoping that I could understand and that would allow recovery. But knowing what it was called and even that I had been duped and should not blame myself did not reduce the pain . Understanding did not resolve my grief. And yes the literature discusses how this type of relationship often triggers grief.. But those around me saw no need to grieve I never got any support that is typically given someone grieving the loss of a “loved one.” Either they disengaged from me because they could not admit the benefit they had received or they didnt see that I had lost anything but an abuser. No one understood the loss that I incurred and that I needed to grieve. For me the love and commitment had been real and deep and when the turmoil began I still believed that it was just a bump in the road. For the longest time I thought we would overcome silly as it seems now. It was after the abandonment that I cam to the realization of what was . Abandonment was emphasized by the fact I was written out of his history and there was no acknowledgment that there had ever even been anything between us. So after 9 years of being devoted (foolishly so yes but devoted none the less) I found myself grieving the loss of the man I loved and with him all my hopes and dreams of the future. And there was no one who understood why I couldnt “just get over it.” Because he was still alive and because there was still so much I didnt know about what had really gone on and because of the overwhelming sense of injustice, I never was able to move through the stages of grief effectively. This of course was underwritten by the trauma bond. I became stuck in the pain of betrayal and the sadness of grief and feeling only hopelessness. I could not find closure because there was none. I couldnt resolve the anger because it was so unjust and wrong and he was not showing any remorse and in fact his lack of acknowledgement of my existence made it even more unjust in my mind. I could not accept it because of the injustice and because of my visions of what could have been . I couldnt get past blaming him thinking that he never gave me a proper chance to be what he wanted because he never told me why he was unhappy or what he wanted – he just lied about everything and kept me on the hook wondering what the f*&% was going on. And then I blamed myself for being the fool and not standing up for myself when I should have and letting him roll over me but reall because I was to naive to know what it was really all about. If I would have realized I would have come at it from a different direction but by the time I figured it out the damage had been done and there was no getting him back. So the anger fed by blame shame and guilt kept me from moving through grief. The uncertainty in my mind that it couldnt be fixed. The deep sadnesss of loosing all the dreams I had that were build around him. The humilation which also fed the anger and kept it alive. I was dysfunctional with severe depression. The sadness of the loss and the pain of why was omnipresent. all the while knowing it was a sickness and that I needed to accept and rebuild my life. I couldnt shake it. I was stuck on how it could have been and should have been and how it was in the beginning.. I could not accept what I knew to be true – I still envisioned the man I had fallen in love with and understanding what he was and what he did to me did not make the cognitive dissonance go away.

    Long story short – after several long years of suffering and obsession, I busted my way back into his life just to be treated very much the same – the conflict within me raged and I was attempting to put an end to it when – tragic motorcycle accident – he’s dead. Still no resolution to any of it and still morning the man I loved (man I thought he was in the beginning) and the loss of my dreams and now full resentment for wasting all this time on someone who didnt care but still morning what could have been and what my dreams held it to be. Every sad often mad but always sad again. No end. Ambiguous grief.

    • Mel  October 10, 2020 at 1:24 pm Reply

      I resonate with your story so much… I do know what was happening, at least for the last 3 years or more, just couldn’t figure out how to ‘help’ or ‘influence’ his mental illness. He is still alive and we just divorced. I’m not sure how to live in this ambiguous grief and still be okay. My mind, my head, is just like “come on let’s get over it already!” and my body, my heart is still in shock and denial, can’t understand what happened or why or how any of it is okay. I’m just more sure what to do anymore.

  9. Katherine  March 7, 2020 at 4:12 am Reply

    I read all the comments and feel so heartbroken for people in this exquisite pain. I too am suffering it, and have done most of my life. My parents separated when I was young, due to domestic violence and alcoholism, but we still saw my Dad and my Mum was turbulent with mental health, she was at times warm and loving but she could be emotionally abusive and throw me out at times but I was close to my brother and idolised him. When we grew up he met a horrible woman who was jealous of our relationship and I have not spent any time with him since. For 10
    years he would walk past me in the street as if I was a stranger. My relationship with my mother continued as it always had with a cycle of abuse, and her mental health continued to deteriorate. My Dad set up home with his new partner but was still in touch. I married and had children, which became absolutely everything to me, my safe family bubble I could escape in from the world and knew I was loved and could love freely. But when my youngest was still a baby my husband abandoned us and went to live with a younger girl he met at work. I nearly lost my mind but I kept going for my children. Thinking it may draw family closer to us it had the opposite effect. My Dad especially stopped coming to see us, I think he was afraid of having to lift the burden. I began counselling and worked through a lot. We have become strong as a unit of 3 and have so much love. My children are autistic and I feel sure I am too. We are the most loving and kind people and crave harmony. I grieve for all the relationships they are missing and me. The pressure of being everything to them is enormous and I fear so much doing them harm inadvertently because it is a struggle. I love them with all my heart. Through counselling I became strong enough to finally disengage from the psychological abuse from my mother. The shaming, name calling, belittling, humiliation, made me unable to function well enough to care for my own kids so I had no choice. I live with ambiguity of missing a Mum but never wanting to see mine ever again. And the guilt of this. I have also met and fallen in love with a new partner. I find it so hard to believe someone could be so good after all my experiences and I struggle with anxious attachment. But he tries so hard to help me. I continue to try not to see him through the lens of my experiences and to find trust. He is beyond precious to me. There must be hope for a world where relationships can thrive and be healthy. We all have the same love in our hearts, like my joyful babies do. It is like a disease, the opposite of this takes hold. Now I am training to become a counsellor and hope to help people with this type of grief. Love and blessings to every single person struggling to live with this.

  10. Liz  January 17, 2020 at 11:05 pm Reply

    To Devastated To Talk At The Moment And I’m So Sorry About That Because I Never Knew What This Was Called!! And If I Had I’d Have Truly Thought I’d Never Go Through This!! I’ve Been Through Enough Thing’s In My Life I Could Write A Book. But My God This I Never Seen Coming Not Ever Are Ever Just Completely Heartbroken I Actually Can’t Believe It. I’ve Lost My Son And My Two Beautiful Grandsons Can’t Write Anything Else At The Moment I Feel Destroyed Utterly And Completely.

  11. Jamie  December 22, 2019 at 12:33 pm Reply

    My WYG story is intertwined with recent losses from suicide and drug overdoses to long-term losses from these plus cancer deaths that I am grouping all together with the ambiguous loss of a relationship where I have been shunned by an ex lover and her family and friends who live in my community.

    I came to this site after the last person on this latter loss list posted something on FB regarding her father’s very recent suicide and how this site is helping her get through this first holiday season without him. Not going into details, but suffice it to say that my own holiday depression is happening right now so I read it and did something stupid – I liked it thinking she must have some empathy towards me over this shunning process, but she subsequently blocked me as well, so now I am completely shunned by a family and ex friends that used to be. I can see them in the local stores, riding trough town and they see me but they want nothing to do with me and refuse to communicate in any way, as if I am dead to them. This alone exasperates the situation because it becomes a open story: FB facts are available to anybody in the world on them except me via this FB blocking process; unresponded apologies for whatever caused this shunning that I still don’t know why over (her mother ended it with me almost 3 years now); and just a simple acknowledgement that I am not a ghost, nor are they, when we see each other in the community.

    So, ironically, coming to this site has further entrenched me into the ambiguous grief category; and now wants to take top billing over this other grief that I feel as well – something in which she (ex’s daughter) is also going through now via her dad’s death. “Yes she’s sad her dad died, but will probably be happy if I die”, thoughts come to mind and all that. But in reading all these WYG articles and reader posts, I had no idea it has a category (ambiguous loss) and is real others have this same type of sadness. I believe some good will come from this moving on and will definitely be reading Pauline’s book.

  12. Lynn  August 16, 2019 at 9:17 am Reply

    I have lived with estrangement from my married youngest son( I have 2 sons) for almost 10 years. The grief is real and deep. My marriage with their father ended after much abuse when they were in middle school. We 3 were inseparable and best of friends during their entire time at home. All their friends stayed at my house during my single years and I loved every moment because I was a “cool mom”. If the truth be known, I loved that my son’s were close enough to me, to feel free to invite their friends over all the time. Plus….I knew what was being discussed between them all and was a part of their growing up.
    My immediate family has always been a tightly knit family and my boys grew up surrounded by cousins and making memories at the “homeplace” . My father was my youngest sons idle, and once he got his drivers licence, he was prone to hit the road to go see his Papa.
    I eventually married again to a wonderful man who adored my boys and adored our relationship, allowing us the freedom to continue our “threesome” from time to time, going on mini trips together.
    I mention all the above to help paint the picture of a mother and her 2 sons incredible and -envied by many -relationship.
    My eldest left for college and I never would have dreamed that a mother and son could get closer, but my youngest and I were inseparable. I had a convertible and when we were free, rode around with the top down singing old rock songs at the top of our lungs, acting silly but was in pure heaven.
    Then…he left for college….and met a girl…a beautiful and smart girl…(daddy always said to say something good about everyone)..and everything changed.
    Long story short. ..She is a super possessive person.. She has convinced him and poisoned him to believe that he had a horrible childhood. (My oldest married a gal that embraced our relationship…the youngest wife was jealous and felt threatened by it)
    He stopped calling me years ago except on birthdays and mothers day. Now that he has 3 girls (whom I only get to see except for kindergarten programs and a very rare 2 hour limit visit with my son and DIL in the same room), They are the ones who call me on those days. I even get a mother’s day card from them (the grand daughters). They live only an hour away and I stopped begging to see them about a year ago because everytime i would text him to ask.. It would take at least a week or two for him to reply with a ” sorry..been slammed at work..let me check our schedule”, then it would take another week or so to get an official 2 hour visitation pass. I just stopped asking because my died a little everytime that happened.
    My dad died a year and a half ago. I called him and mom every day at least once…but the last 3-4 years of his life, he would wind up crying at some point during my call..wanting to know what he did to hurt my sons feelings to drive him away. Talk about HEARTACHE. (My parents would die if they ever had an inkling of an idea they had hurt someone. Godly people who love unconditifinally…)
    He died in his sleep at home..and youngest came immediately to the homeplace as did my entire family. He stayed a few hours..and came to funeral 2 days later ,as did his wife and the 3 girls. But..what broke my heart was when the 2 oldest grand daughters came to me prior to the service , hugged me and after prompting from their mother to tell me “something special”, they said like little robots..”We are sorry for your loss”.
    I screamed inside.I wanted to tell them it was YOUR loss too…but they will never know that…because their parents never took them to hang out and know their great grand parents. WHEN they would show up at Thanksgiving or Christmas, it is brief and chaotic …leaving their little cousins standing speechless when they leave..not understanding why .
    It’s a domino effect…it’s not just me that suffers. My dad did…and my mom who is losing her mind day by day due to Alzheimers…His older brother with whom he shared a room with all Their lives and who were inseparable.Their aunts and uncles and cousins who now have children and don’t know each other except by name. ( One Christmas, we were all sitting around talking about how much we missed my son. One cousin stated…”it’s like he died”.
    Estrangement is a death…a cruel and unexplained death. My dad’s passing mades sense. He was 82 years old and in bad health but had lived a glorious life.
    This death by estrangement makes NO sense whatsoever.
    I live with grief every single day and low self esteem and deep depression. I can relate to the article when it talked about searching for self identity. I struggle deeply with that every day as well….because all my dreams of being a grandmother to all my grandkids (I do have 2 from my eldest who I enjoy the typical grandparent joys) has been shattered. I bought a mega set of holiday dishes several years ago anticipating holiday dinners with both boys and their families.. And enough place settings for several grandchildren. Those dishes are collecting dust.
    I wonder every morning…who am I? I used to be a great mother….now I am a grandmother to 2 beautiful girls, but I want to be the same to my other 3. Every memory I make with the 2 (from my eldest) is mixed with sadness because I want the same with the other 3.
    Sorry this is long…but the grief from crying over a living person is gut wrenching , confusing to no end and leaves me in an abyss of despair.
    I never, ever, ever saw this coming.

    • Tina Bradley  December 9, 2019 at 11:31 am Reply

      I wear your shoes, the exact ones, every day. Your post really stayed with me….finally someone who truly understands. The grief and sadness and the depression are like a heavy weighted blanket. And I feel like I’m grieving in silence. Nobody understands that this IS a death of sorts and I keep getting assurances that my child will be back, this is just a phase. But just like in your situation, she is in a relationship with a person who in a matter of a few short weeks poisoned her against us and the rest of her family, somehow re-writing the reality of her past and our relationship. I never would’ve thought our close relationship would be susceptible to this, but here we are. I wish I could know you. I wish I had someone to talk with who really knew what this feeels like so we could lean on each other. I live in Nashville and can’t find one single support group.
      I send you all my love and the knowledge that you’re not alone.


      • julieS  January 30, 2021 at 7:33 pm

        This is the same with me. (My youngest daughter). I really feel for you, it is for me the strongest most unrelenting pain and one that people don’t often understand. People assume you have done something to cause this but if that were true the other children would be the same and I would be the only one cut off, instead of all siblings, grandparents, aunties, uncles, family friends…. everyone from her life who loves her has been cut off. We are willing to go to therapy to address anything we may have unknowingly done, I have apologised and so have her siblings for anything we have inadvertently done to hurt her but she doesn’t reply. She has completely ghosted us. Heartbreaking and yes I love my other children but we ALL miss her. Every child is loved for themselves. So I feel for you and pray for you and hope you can find the support you need.

  13. Lindsey  August 9, 2019 at 8:24 am Reply

    We said goodbye to our Foster Son after seeing him grow from a 2 week old NAS baby. We collected him from hospital. Then said goodbye to strong, happy and inquisitive 10.5 month old. I’m sure I miss him more each day and am struggling to function in everyday life without him. He was always with me. I am linging to feel his chubby little arms around my neck. The pain is so deep….

  14. Heather Stambaugh, LMHC NCC CAP  July 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article! Ambiguous loss comes up some much in my therapeutic work with the LGBTQ+ community, when queer people are rejected by their families. There is often a long-term, nagging question like “Will they ever come around? Will they ever be able to love me for who I am? Was it a mistake to come out and drive them away?” I will definitely check out Pauline Boss’ book after reading this. I love that it sounds like it incorporates a lot of DBT concepts, which will fit really well with a lot of the DBT work I already do.

  15. Marilyn Botta  June 23, 2019 at 4:38 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. I totally understand the concept of “ambiguous loss.” I have an adult son who has been battling mental illness for almost 20 years. He has been hospitalized numerous times, seems to recover and lead a productive, relatively “normal” life for a while, only to “relapse”, which actually implies he was ever free of his mental illness, which he has never really been. He is schizophrenic and is now on medication, but does not comply with the things he needs to do to function in the world. It is especially difficult because he lives in NJ and I live in Georgia. However, I have tried to get him into program after program, with therapists, and case managers only to have him reject the help that is freely offered him. He has been homeless for years, yet keeps turning down offers of housing from his treatment programs. I actually wrote about ambiguous loss in my blog, A Woman Speaks Out, back in 2014. When a loved one physically dies, there is a period of mourning that eventually gives way to some sort of acceptance and healing. But when your child becomes, “someone you used to know”, it is particularly difficult because how can you mourn somebody that has not died? It is easy and anybody who deals with a loved one with dementia or especially mental illness can understand this concept. I mourn the adorable boy he was, the young man with promise, the son who was always on the same wavelength with me, the boy with the great sense of humor. I am always waiting for “the other shoe to drop” and wonder when the next crisis will be. I grieve my boy, who I speak to periodically and actually sounds fairly “normal” on the phone. But, there simply is no reasoning with him about anything he does not want to do. It is a constant battle for me to disassociate myself on some days, just so I can have some sort of happiness. I am in mourning every single day and sometimes I wonder how things would be if he passed away. God forbid, but I could grieve and then begin to heal. But then I hate myself for even thinking the unthinkable. When there is ambiguous loss, you grieve the loss of the essence of your loved one; you mourn every single day, some days less then others. You live in a roller coaster world where one day you may get some good news from his therapists and then suddenly there is no movement or he goes backward. One step forward, two steps back and then you often have to start from scratch. This happens over and over with no relief in sight. You cannot talk to most people about your “loss” because they do not understand. You cannot constantly bombard people with the latest horror story because they do not want to hear it. You have to put on a happy face, when underneath there is about 20% of my brain that cannot ever, ever, be happy. There is that part of me with a broken heart that I have to hide lest I be considered a “negative” person. And then there is the loss of hope—the feeling that nothing will ever get better. That hopelessness is deadly because it leads to depression on my part. I know that acceptance is the key to everything, but this is often a bitter pill to swallow and it is hard to accept that your child is gradually disappearing before your very eyes.

    • Cheri Barnes  September 1, 2019 at 1:57 am Reply

      Marilyn, my heart goes out to you. ?. I have a similar situation. A son who is mentally ill and is no longer the same person and I feel no hope at this point of him getting himself help. I have done everything in my power to guide him to help, yet since he is over 18 I can’t do anything to “make “ him get the help he so needs. It’s been a down hill slide since he turned 18 ten years ago. At this point we aren’t speaking. it’s affected me emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I am so so sad and grieving the loss of my son who is still alive. It’s hard to deal with on a daily basis. I feel stuck and not sure how to get through all of this. I would love to find some kind of support group or some kind of help where I can share about this with others in similar situations and possibly get some help for myself. I feel like I am slipping into a dark place I can’t seem to crawl out of. My email is If anyone has any suggestions I would so appreciate it. Thank you all for sharing so candidly. ??

  16. Mel  May 16, 2019 at 7:43 pm Reply

    Happy to of found this space. My dad was diagnosed a month ago with pancreatic cancer, he’s 74 this year. I wouldn’t say I’ve processed it at all yet, its a befuddled place. I’ve lived in separate countries from my family since I was 15 so almost 30 years, so much time and moments that’s just flowed away. I haven’t seen him for 2 years and they have come to NZ for a visit before he is unable to travel. My heart grieves already as I see him fighting pain and nausea, feeling tired and weak when he is such a strapping man and has always been so strong, an oak tree. I grieve for our lack of time together in the past and now the lack of time together in the future as now that is months not years. I grieve for my mum,who now has the knowledge her love and best friend of 43 years is not going to be here for the time they have talked and planned about. How she holds her self and her tears together so not to upset him as all he cares about is her, the jewel of his life. I grieve for their breaking hearts.
    My youngest (12) and I will go to Australia in the next few months ( where they live ) to be helpful, to be together, my partner and 17 year old will come when they can. I am scared, so scared of what is to come, how to be there, to be useful, to not be in the way, to see him suffer, to see my family suffer, and could maybe do with some resouces if anyone would be so kind to share them with me, cause I need help to get ready for this, for my dad, my mum and brothers and myself.

  17. Teresa Pedicone  May 9, 2019 at 12:26 pm Reply

    Thankyou so much for this article. A dear FB friend sent it to me. I have suffered this type of grief for many years over my 2 children becoming addicts, after their father’s suicide.Both being incarcerated and now, my daughter who is on a maintenance drug (Methadone) for addiction., Suddenly and not knowing why, stopped talking to me. Refuses to answer text messages or calls. It has been over a year. I did so much for her in the past during her 12 yr battle with heroin addiction, took care of her child, Took him to other states to see her, gave her $ and did all I could to help her get into recovery many times. Now, she just stops talking to me for no reason? I cried and grieved all this time since she first shut me out and I started realizing that I have to move on with my life, despite the loss and make a new life for myself. One without her and my son, though he was still in addiction, was in and out of jail, sometimes homeless, yet always tried to stay in touch. Always loved me, never deliberately hurt me. So at least I still have him. When you are a care giver for so many years, it is very difficult to find some purpose after that ends. I felt worthless, alone, abandoned. Forgotten and abused. But I prayed so many times to be lifted out of depression. I had major health issues off and on and finally realized I needed to focus on myself and getting well, rather than them. I found a place of letting go of them, though I love them dearly and miss them. To now, just enjoying the little time I do get with my son and my grandson, The rest of the time, focusing on my parents and my husband. It has been long and a hard transition after so many years of being so intertwined with them. I am finally getting to a peace inside I guess. But still have the tear filled days over my daughter. I hope someday she will call me and want to see me again. But until then, I will take your advice and thankyou for writing this article. I had no idea there was a name for this type of grief. You touched on everything I have felt and have been trying to do. Please keep writing and sharing this with us!

  18. Beverly Ahles  April 9, 2019 at 3:02 am Reply

    I’m so happy that a good friend recommended this site for help. I have a son who was totally traumatized as a 12-year-old by the loss of his 14-year-old brother suffering sudden death in his arms .
    The first son was kept alive by being defibrillated and subsequent I lived in a coma for the next nine months. When this once happy go lucky and normal son reached the age his brother was at the time of his death he endured identification with the deceased . This happened many years ago and eventually spiraled into his decline… Along with many ups and downs… Into full-blown addiction .
    This is going on all through his life and now we have necessarily had to separate our lives from his because of the fact that there are younger children involved and he was living on the Fringe at all times and refused programs… Although he was incarcerated many times. I know he’s a sick human being that we still love… At the present time living on the streets. My question to you is Where can I find the book I need and maybe Even a workbook I could utilize to help me cope with this tragic loss of my second and only living son. I’m now at the age of 75 and the pain rages just as strongly as it did in the beginning when this much loved son took the wrong path through his own pain. Please let me know where I can purchase the necessary books… Thank you very much for your help.

  19. Laura  April 8, 2019 at 11:02 am Reply

    I am new to this website and am so grateful I found it. I am an adoptive mom and I worry about how best to help my 10 year old with the ambiguous loss of his birth parents who are living. I would love a book recommendation for parents of adoptive children, as well as books for adoptive kids that touch on the loss as opposed to feelings around “family” (which are great, but do not touch on loss). I have read “20 questions adopted kids which their adopted parents knew” which touches on loss, but would love some book recommendations for my child and our family.

    • Sarahg13  May 30, 2021 at 1:32 am Reply

      I am nearing the 2 year anniversary of when
      me and my Gexhusband split up. At the time, his sexuality was never in question. To the whole world, we were immensely in love. He began drinking a lot and became very irate and distant. The last 2 years of our marriage.
      When we split I thought it would be a way for us to take a break
      To remember why we loved each other so much. Within days he was at a gay bar and on a gay dating site.
      We never had a face to face “talk”. He avoided me immediately once I reached out via texts and phone calls.
      We had 10 years together.
      And I was completely blindsided.
      I force myself to hate him, but I think about him everyday. I loved him so much and thought he loved me.
      It’s so confusing and so unreal.

  20. Cally Ingebritson  March 26, 2019 at 12:36 am Reply

    I’ve followed WYG for years and am so grateful to see another post about ambiguous loss as that is the type of grief I have. Please continue to cover this topic, I deeply appreciate it. Thanks for all your work! <3

  21. Deb  March 25, 2019 at 11:34 pm Reply

    Despite all the grammatical errors in this post, which, sorry, really distracted me from the message since I’m a “wordie” at heart, this was a much welcome article!! There is so little written about such losses, and I’ve suffered SO many of these types of “unresolveable” types, it’s become ridiculous (can I label them “unfair”?), seriously debilitating and overwhelming to my entire being. Not having yet read Pauline Boss’s book, I don’t really understand what she means by both holding on AND letting go, simultaneously…a foreign concept I’ve not been able to reconcile or even begin to master, for all my efforts. Ambiguity is really difficult to deal with any area. So you’re right — it’s a “long and complex” process, for sure. I don’t have any ready answers, and as a person who prefers a higher level of certainty to enable a feeling of security, this is all an awfully tough road. At present, I feel I embody more of the “hopeless” type, and can’t even imagine what “redefining” my concepts of “fairness and justice” might look like. So much to chew on in yet another of your articles, so thank you.

  22. Rosslyn  March 25, 2019 at 11:17 pm Reply

    My partner has passed he died here in my room I did CPR untill the ambulance arrived. I found out he was seeing prostitutes which broke my heart . I got him to leave but I couldn’t cope missing the man I knew not the other one.Its been 6yrs but I go over it all the time I just couldn’t walk away I feel like a fool when I say I love him but I do is there something wrong with me .

  23. Dira McClintock  March 25, 2019 at 7:56 pm Reply

    Yes, I hear what Beth is saying. Many types of ambiguous grief. My husband died of ALS in October,, he was diagnosed 15 months before his death So his body failed him but he was 100% himself mentally, .. So I had those extra 15 months of grief knowing he had a fatal condition. Where does that fit it ? Or is it ambiguous grief or something else. Anticipatory grief….maybe a better word.. In the meantime I had to support him through it all.. I was strong for him, not much time or energy to feel my own grief.. Did it give me time to accept it,, did it just add to the grief, will it make my grief now different??.. I don’t know myself. A day at a time.

  24. Beth Erlander  March 25, 2019 at 6:47 pm Reply

    This article is so great, and I really like Pauline Boss’s work as I found her while doing my own grief research with non-death related losses. So thanks for posting this!

    And…I have to say that I was disappointed to once again not be included with my specific loss. Your title implied that it would…grieving someone who is still alive. My loss is my partner’s able body. He is a quadriplegic and is dependent on his power chair for limited movement and caregivers for mostly everything else. His has lost his able body…this is dead, and yet he is still so very much alive.

    Have you covered losses such as this due to disability issues? It feels like ambiguous loss and yet it doesn’t fit in this category of this blog post.

    This happened back in 2012. I am a therapist (I was at the time of the accident) and I now call myself the Grief Freak mainly because I am so passionate about helping people navigate this thing called grief. But today after feeling so hopeful that this article might speak to me, and then feeling my disappointment about once again not having my loss acknowledged, perhaps I call myself the Grief Freak because I am indeed a freak…someone who doesn’t belong, doesn’t fit it.

    I am not writing this with negativity and I am aware that I need to read Pauline’s book. But I just needed to write a comment about my thoughts.

    And I am curious if you have written on the subject of grief that comes with suddenly dealing with any kind of disability.

    Thanks so much for doing what you do. I love your blogs and posts on Instagram too.

    • Litsa Williams  March 29, 2019 at 2:05 pm Reply

      Beth, I’m wondering if you looked at our first ambiguous grief post. It gets more to the experience that you are going through (though not entirely). That post is specially about being who are still in your life and you are grieving them not being the person they used to be, vs this follow up post which is about someone who has disappeared. Pauline Boss very clearly talks about both, though your loss is more specifically what they call ‘Non-finite Grief’, so searchs for that might help you to feel more connection. Sorry this wasn’t what you were hoping fo.

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.