Unseen Grief: Mourning the Living
Ambiguous Loss: A Different Kind of Grief
Loss and grief are typically associated with the death of a loved one. However, there’s another form of loss that can be equally, if not more, emotionally devastating. Dr. Pauline Boss, a renowned thought leader in the interdisciplinary study of family stress, coined the term “ambiguous loss”. This refers to a type of grief resulting from the transformation of a loved one due to reasons such as addiction, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, or mental illness. The person is physically present, but their psychological absence makes them unrecognizable.
Witnessing the degradation of a parent due to dementia, for example, can be one of the most challenging experiences. We see once strong, powerful figures become dependent and disabled, often over a prolonged period. The emotional consequences for adult children can be overwhelming. It’s not only the person living with the condition who feels the pain, but also those around them who mourn the loss of the person they once knew.
The Emotional Journey of Ambiguous Loss
The emotional process behind ambiguous loss is complex and personal. The person you knew and loved is physically present, but their disease or disorder may have altered them significantly. This can lead to strong feelings of grief and loss. Yet, despite the pain, it’s essential to remember that mourning is not only associated with death. It’s also possible to grieve for someone very much alive.
As author Vicki Harrison once said, “Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Ambiguous loss is a different kind of grief, and like any grief, it manifests differently for everyone.
Tips for Managing Ambiguous Grief
Dealing with ambiguous loss can be a lonely and isolating process. Here are a few tips that may help ease its effects:
- Feel your grief: Grief is a roller coaster of emotions, so be gentle with yourself as you navigate the ups and downs. The healing process can only begin when you face and feel whatever comes your way.
- Hold your memories close: While living in the past won’t change the current situation, cherished memories do make the past ever-present. Remembering the person your loved one once was can help you see beyond the person they have become.
- Accept the new normal: As time presses forward, you will eventually have to accept the changes that have occurred in your loved one and your relationship. Acceptance is a crucial part of the process of learning to cope with life’s changes.
- Practice self-care: Grief can be all-consuming. Whether it’s exercising, having a massage, or indulging in a special meal, make yourself a priority. Being conscious of your emotional and physical state will sustain you throughout the process.
- Seek support: Open and honest communication is an essential part of the healing process. Sharing your feelings with your trusted inner circle or even a professional can help alleviate the pain involved with this type of loss.
Remember, the grief you might feel for someone still alive can be painful and isolating. It’s a process that will take time and patience. Some days may be harder than others. Allow yourself the space to feel whatever emotions come your way and know that what you’re feeling is normal.
Family Misunderstanding and Grief
Family dynamics can further complicate the process of dealing with ambiguous loss. After a death, many people feel isolated and misunderstood. When a family member is still alive but psychologically absent, it can lead to family misunderstandings. Family members may respond differently to the same loss, leading to feelings of isolation and disappointment.
Changing family dynamics, different emotional responses, birth order, and gender can all contribute to family misunderstandings during the grieving process. However, understanding these factors can help families navigate the complexities of ambiguous loss together.
Death and grief can make people behave unpredictably, and family is no exception. However, with patience, understanding, and open communication, families can learn to navigate the rocky terrain of ambiguous loss together.
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