She’s there, in the world. She’s at home, on the street, or maybe she’s at the senior living center. She’s alive physically, but she’s changed. She doesn’t talk to you, or if she does, she’s cruel, punishing, or maybe she completely checked out, aloof. Maybe she just doesn’t even recognize you, or believes you’re out to get her in some way. You no longer have texts, long phone calls, let alone a lovely visit. You are either caretaking for her or you are invisible to her in some way. If this is you and you have a daughter or mother who sounds like this, you may be experiencing a type of ambiguous loss. You may relate to this blog directly or know someone who does. Either way, I hope to spread the word about ambiguous loss.
“What is it?” you may be asking? Most people have never heard of the term ambiguous loss. I want you to know about this loss because it’s so common and yet it is one of the most painful and complicated kinds of loss we can endure. We can thank Pauline Boss Ph.D. for putting Ambiguous Loss on the map for us, identifying, naming it and creating a whole field of study for it. Many of us grasp that grief and loss are not merely relegated for actual physical death. We have loss of job, marriage, hometown, dreams, etc. These are losses of the non-physical death variety. Ambiguous Loss is a non-death loss, with two types: psychological and physical. An example of a physical loss would be the case of a missing person. They are physically gone, but psychologically alive in the lives of their loved ones, wondering where are they? What if their still alive? Waiting for the possibility of their return.
The other type of ambiguous loss is the one the I’m focused on here today and this the psychological kind.
We can lose our loved ones in a psychological way, dementia, mental illness, addiction, traumatic brain-injury, estrangement and even workaholism. What is it like to have someone physically around, yet unable to be in relationship with you? It’s excruciating, confusing and there is no cure or known end to it. What is this like if it’s your own mom or your own daughter? It’s awful, heart-breaking, devastating and once again, confusing. Here but not here. Gone but not gone. This is ambiguous loss.
In my work with mother-daughter relationships I often hear the heart-wrenching stories from both mothers and daughters who have some form of ambiguous loss. The daughter who has cut off from her mother or the mother has stopped talking her daughter. It happens both ways. Family estrangement often ensues and sometimes years of not speaking follow. Reasons for estrangement vary widely some can be healthy, thoughtful, well discerned decisions, while others may be full of anger, resentment, fear, and misunderstanding. Regardless, if your mother or daughter stopped or paused being in relationship with you, you are experiencing ambiguous loss.
Many mothers and daughters, know why they are not in relationship. It could be years of addiction cycles or maybe your mother was diagnosed (or possibly more confusing, never diagnosed) with a mental health issue that impacts her ability to be in relationships. Daughters in their 60’s who remain unrecognized by mothers in their 80’s or 90’s with Alzheimer’s are all experiencing ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss can impact anyone regardless of age, culture, socioeconomic status.
How do we live with this uncertainty and ambiguity? This is one of the struggles I support women with. It is an easily misunderstood loss and can be accompanied with guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, grief, and difficulty knowing how to move through life. There is no funeral for this loss. There is no large gathering, hearing meaningful words about this woman you love. There is no such thing as closure. There is often little to no acknowledgement that you are, in fact, dealing with a major complicated loss. Friends don’t know how to bring it up and it just lays there, inside of you. I want you to know you are not alone. There are so many people who are going through this, it is possible to find new hope, new meaning, and learn how to carry this complicated loss in way that lets you continue on in a new way with your life.
**This blog is simply to provide information and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or take the place of professional help**