Seven ways to cope with an ambiguous loss

‘Ambiguous loss’ is a term most people haven’t come across, but a loss many people will experience in their lifetime. Some examples include; children leaving home for university, going through a divorce, someone you love having cancer or aging parents developing dementia.

It is described as the most stressful and confusing type of loss; usually ongoing and without closure or resolution; often living with someone who is both here and gone. Sometimes there is not a chance to say goodbye or ask questions. Those experiencing an unclear loss express being in a state of limbo – not knowing how to move forward or live with the uncertainty. They may experience sadness, doubt, confusion, guilt or anxiety from their unresolved or frozen grief. 

There are two types of ambiguous loss; when someone is physically absent but remains psychologically present such as with a missing person, suicide or immigration; or when a loved one is physically present but psychologically absent, for example with chronic mental illness, addiction or brain injury. All of these losses can be devastating and have an impact on everyone involved.

Seven ways to cope with an ambiguous loss:

  • Recognise ambiguous loss – name it, and realise that you are not to blame – it is beyond your control. Ask yourself what your situation means to you, even if it defies logic. Understand that the world is not always a fair place and you have not done anything wrong.
  • Call on others for support – who is there to help when things are tough? It could be family, friends, community or support groups. Isolation doesn’t help, so find someone to listen and lean on in times of need.
  • Be aware of anger and guilt – these emotions are a normal response, but what impact do they have on your life or others? Talk to someone you trust about your difficult or conflicting emotions, your hopes and worst fears and how you are managing day to day.
  • Revisit your family roles – these won’t be the same as they have been. What change has happened and what are your tasks now? What role do you take and what would help you manage this adjustment? Your relationships may change, along with your identity.
  • Balance your thinking – instead of absolutes or trying to find a solution. It is less stressful to encompass paradoxical thoughts e.g. ‘My loved one is both gone and still here’ or ‘I have the anxiety of no closure and also an opportunity to move on with my life in a new direction’.
  • Renew hope – what are your new dreams for the future? Even though this may seem impossible at the moment, finding hope and new options will help you cope and balance the ambiguity.
  • Look after yourself – find activities that help you manage when you feel powerless, such as meditation, playing music, mindfulness or exercising. Be aware of stress and anxiety and seek professional help if you are struggling.

Counselling can help build resilience and discover hope in the midst of stress and uncertainty. The anxiety of an ambiguous loss can strain and rupture close relationships at a time you really need support. Talking to someone can help you explore and understand the emotional rollercoaster of loving someone who is here but not, and be able to let go and still remember. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals