What is ambiguous loss

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Ambiguous loss is unlike any other style of grief. This type of grief can happen to anyone and for reasons that are not always recognized or permissible by society. 

Numerous situations can trigger feelings of ambiguous loss within a person – these include:

  • Immigration (or the immigration of a loved one)
  • Living with a chronic illness or disability (or witnessing a loved one with those conditions)
  • Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s/Dementia or having a relative with the condition
  • A loved one being in a life-threatening illness and being on life-support
  • A missing person or a kidnapping
  • Divorce or separation (including relationship breakups)
  • Giving up a child for adoption

What is an ambiguous loss?

Ambiguous loss is grief limbo. In many cases, no death has occurred, and yet – there is a feeling of deep and persistent mourning. 

Losing a loved one who is still a part of our life in some way or another – can leave us feeling confused and unable to move forward with our lives.

Psychologist, Pauline Boss, coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ in the 1970s while she was researching fathers in the military who were absent from their families for long periods. 

Ambiguous loss is the grief experienced by the loss of a loved one who is still alive, accompanied by the death or change of the relationship.

Symptoms of ambiguous loss

The symptoms associated with ambiguous loss are similar to other forms of grieving, but there are also some marked distinctions.

Below are some of the symptoms linked to ambiguous loss:

  • Feeling sad about an event or situation and not knowing why.
  • Believing that others are minimizing your feelings, this leaves you feeling unheard and unsupported.
  • Ambiguous loss can make you feel as though you are going crazy.
  • You may believe that you are being dramatic, overreacting, or making a mountain out of a molehill.
  • You may experience feelings of guilt for being so sad (especially in cases where a person may still be alive).
  • Oscillating between hope and hopelessness.
  • Experiencing survivors guilt.
  • You may get consumed by uncertainty and torture.
  • You may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and excessively using drugs and alcohol to numb the distress.

Hope and loss

Since ambiguous loss is a complicated style of grieving – there can be elements of hope involved in the process.

For instance, if a child is missing, the parents are likely to experience ambiguous grief to some degree.

But, since there is no evidence of the child’s whereabouts – there is always the lingering hope that they will eventually return home safe and well.

This can leave people feeling bewildered as their emotions will likely fluctuate between feeling hopeful and being plunged into the darkest depths of loss imaginable. 

Which is one of Pauline Boss’s two types of ambiguous loss?

According to Boss, there are two types of ambiguous loss – they include:

  1. When a person is physically present but psychologically and emotionally absent (such as in Alzheimer’s or critical illness). 
  2. When a person is physically absent but psychologically present (such as when a person goes missing or given up for adoption).

Ambiguous loss is a specific type of loss that is usually void of any boundaries or resolution.  

Finding closure is difficult for those experiencing ambiguous loss as there is so much uncertainty surrounding the event.

What is an example of an ambiguous loss?

There are numerous examples of ambiguous loss, such as the ones’ mentioned above. 

Although there are much more common themes to ambiguous loss which experts have identified, these include:

Substance addiction

Relatives whose loved ones’ suffer from addiction live with ambiguous loss every day to some degree or another.

The person they love is very much alive in every sense of the word, but their addiction to a substance such as drugs and alcohol abstains them from being the person they once were.

Since an addict’s life gets fueled by addiction, they often abandon their former selves to continue the cycle of drinking or drug-taking.

Commonly, the families of addicts go through a state of ambiguous grief, such as grieving the way the addict was before the addiction took hold.

All of the great memories of a life lost to substance abuse become stuck in a vacuum of persistent mourning – something that is very often unacknowledged and unsupported by society and familial communities.

Chronic Disease

When you or a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic illness such as Alzheimer’s or cancer – it can be a life-changing event for everyone involved.

These types of diagnoses create feelings of uncertainty and un-resolve. Grief gets induced as if there has been a death, and yet the person is still physically present.

All this occurs very often in critical illness where an individual’s loved one is very ill, and perhaps being kept alive on a life-support machine.

The feelings of grief are present, and yet the person cannot seek resolve and move through the different grief stages such as:

  • Denial
  • Bargaining
  • Acceptance
  • Anger

How do you deal with ambiguous loss?

Grieving someone who is still alive can be tricky. 

There is so much confusion and ambiguity, all of which make no sense.

However, there are ways that an individual can learn to manage and process feelings of ambiguous loss – such as:

Practising resilence

The ability to tolerate uncertainty is the meat and bones of what makes the ambiguous loss more comfortable to manage.

Understanding that you might not have all the answers right now, and learning to accept the situation for what it is, will eventually lead to acceptance and further down the line perhaps even resolution.

Having a high tolerance for ambiguity and being able to deal with a lack of closure is an essential aspect in coming to terms with your grief.

Cultivating self-care

We cannot take care of others if we fail to see to our own needs first. 

All this is the basis for being exceptional caregivers to those whom we love.

Grief is an exhausting process. 

The feelings and emotions that are experienced when it comes to loss can deplete the system – leaving most people devoid of energy.

There are numerous ways that you can nurture your mind and body whilst dealing with grief and processing your loss – they include:

  • Finding the time to exercise
  • Getting enough sleep and adequate rest
  • Proper nutrition
  • Cultivating proper hygiene and emotional wellbeing
  • Reading books about grief

Enjoying fond memories

Enjoying fond memories of your loved one is a natural part of the grieving process. It can also offer comfort to those who are grieving. 

Individuals dealing with loss tend to impart fond memories of their loved one – this occurs in other forms of grief as well as ambiguous loss.

Sharing the good times you had with the person who has passed on helps to maintain a connection long after they have passed. 

The person may or may not still be present, but the memories live way beyond a person’s transcendence.

Reaching out

When we are dealing with feelings of loss and grief, it can be helpful to reach out to others.

All this can be through your local community, friends, family, or grief support groups, all of which can offer comfort to those dealing with feelings of loss.


Therapy is an effective way to get to grips with your grief.

Not only does therapy help to process the loss, but it also enables us to make sense of our grief no matter what the circumstances might be.

Whether someone has lost a loved one through death or unresolved circumstances (such as someone going missing or moving out of the country) therapy is designed to help you move through the different stages of grief.

Mental health is an important aspect to cultivate during the grieving process, and psychologists and grief therapists can help you do just that.

The types of therapy available to those dealing with feelings of grief and loss can vary. 

Typically, you may get offered:


Trauma is a significant element in grief- particularly in circumstances where someone’s loved one has died through:

  • Suicide
  • Long-term illness
  • Sudden death
  • Injury or natural disaster

Being allowed to complete your grief and understand what the loss means to you and for your life in a safe space is an essential aspect of grief recovery – this is possible with the right type of therapy.

Getting help

If you are dealing with loss and feel as though you are stuck in your grief, the team at Tikvah Lake Recovery are here to help. Get in touch today and speak to one of our specialists.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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