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Coping with Living Loss and Ambiguous Grief

Explore the intricate world of ambiguous grief and discover effective coping strategies to navigate the complexities of mourning non-death losses. Learn how to find healing amidst the absence of closure.


Grief, a universal human experience, is often associated with the death of a loved one.

However, grief can also arise from non-death losses, leading to what psychologists call 'ambiguous grief'. I prefer to call it a 'living loss'.


This type of grief is characterised by feelings of loss and mourning without clear closure, often resulting from situations where the absence of a loved one is not definitive, such as missing persons, unresolved relationships, or dementia.


Living loss can be complex and challenging to navigate, but understanding its dynamics and adopting coping strategies can provide solace and healing.


Understanding Ambiguous Grief & Living Loss

Ambiguous grief emerges when individuals face loss without a clear endpoint, making the grieving process more complicated.


A person might experience mixed emotions like sadness, longing, anger, guilt, and confusion, which can disrupt their emotional equilibrium. Whether it's a missing family member, a relationship that remains unresolved, or a loved one whose cognitive abilities are deteriorating, the lack of closure makes grieving a complex emotional journey.


These particular examples are all heart-wrenching in their own way. There can be a lot of unanswered questions and for those that have a loved one that is missing, this can be exacerbated by the constant question - should I live in hope?


I have met many people experiencing living loss - a person has not died, but the keenness of the loss is just as challenging. The most common types of living loss that I have supported people through include:


  • Divorce/separation*

  • Friendships and family relationships that have been severed*

  • Adult children that have not married and remained with their parents until their death, may mourn the loss of a life unlived

  • Incarceration of a loved one, or having been incarcerated, part of a life lost

  • Injury or illness resulting in permanent disability or disfigurement

  • Child removed from custody

These feelings can also arise even if you were the person instigating the separation, and predominantly relates to expectation loss, disappointment, abandonment and anger at being let down, betrayed or neglected.


Coping with Living Loss


Validate your feelings

Acknowledge that your grief is valid, regardless of societal norms or others' perceptions. Give yourself permission to feel the emotions that arise and understand that it's okay to grieve even when the loss isn't readily apparent.


Seek support

Connect with others who may be experiencing similar ambiguous losses. Support groups or coaching can provide a safe space to share your feelings and receive empathy from those who understand your situation.


Create rituals

In the absence of traditional mourning rituals, you can create your own meaningful practices. These rituals can help you honour the memory of the person or relationship you've lost and provide a sense of closure.


Focus on what you can control

While you can't control certain aspects of the loss, focus on what you can influence. This might involve nurturing your own well-being, setting personal boundaries, or finding new ways to connect with the memory of the person.


Embrace ambiguity

Accept that closure might not come in the form you expect. Embrace ambiguity as part of your journey and find meaning in the process of navigating through uncertain emotions.

Living loss, or ambiguous grief, like all grief, does not follow a linear path, and healing takes time. Remember that seeking professional help is a viable option if you're struggling to cope with this complex form of grief. Through understanding, self-compassion, and supportive connections, you can navigate the intricate emotions of ambiguous grief and find a way to heal while honouring the memory of what's been lost.

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