Navigating Ambiguous Loss: How to Cope and Move On

by Erika Slater

Two women sitting on couch in grief and consoling each other

Ambiguous loss is a term used to describe the confusion, grief, and uncertainty experienced when something or someone has gone missing in an ambiguous way. It could be due to physical distance, psychological separation, divorce or even death without closure – this type of loss is sometimes called type-one ambiguous loss. Type-two ambiguous loss is typical in a serious mental disorder and Alzheimer’s due to personality and cognitive changes. Ambiguous grief can often cause long-term emotional distress if not appropriately addressed. In this blog post, we will explore what precisely ambiguous loss is, how it affects us emotionally and psychologically, and practical strategies for coping with it and seeking professional help where necessary so that you can move forward after experiencing it.

Table of Contents:

What is Ambiguous Loss?



Depressed pensive teenage girl staring at window or wall.

Ambiguous loss is psychological distress that occurs when an individual experiences a loss without closure or understanding. It can be caused by the death of a loved one, the disappearance of a family member, or any other situation in which there is no clear resolution. Dr. Pauline Boss first used the term in the 1970s when studying families of soldiers who went missing in action.

Individuals who experience ambiguous loss often feel overwhelmed by intense emotions such as confusion, guilt, anger, grief, and sadness. They may also experience physical symptoms such as fatigue or insomnia due to heightened stress levels from not knowing what happened or why it occurred. Other common signs include difficulty concentrating on tasks at hand; avoiding conversations related to the event; becoming overly emotional when discussing the issue; struggling with decision-making processes; feeling disconnected from friends/family members; developing irrational fears associated with similar events occurring again in the future; experiencing changes in appetite/weight gain/loss; increased alcohol consumption/drug use, all due to unresolved issues surrounding the event or situation.


One example of ambiguous loss could be the sudden disappearance of a family member who was not declared dead but whose whereabouts are unknown. In this case, the person’s loved ones may never know what happened to them and will likely experience persistent feelings of unresolved grief  as they attempt to make sense of their loved ones’ fate.

Another example could involve someone diagnosed with a terminal illness but does not die immediately; instead, they linger for months or years before finally passing away. During this time, those close to them may feel like they are living in limbo—not knowing if each day will be their last together—and unable to grieve until after their loved one passes away entirely.

A final example involves the severe mental illness of a loved one, such as a bipolar or schizophrenia diagnosis. In this case, the personality or capability of a loved one is chronically impaired where the parent(s) or another family member(s) desperately need a grieving process for the loss of the person they once knew who has become a different individual outwardly due to the illness.

Impact on Mental Health:

Ambiguous losses can seriously impact mental health due to the lack of closure associated with these situations. Those affected often struggle with depression, anxiety, guilt, and other challenging emotions related to unresolved questions surrounding their losses. Additionally, it can lead people into cycles where they continually revisit painful memories in search of answers that may never come – leading to only further emotional turmoil and suffering over time rather than healing from it eventually through acceptance.

Ambiguous loss can be challenging to understand, but recognizing its symptoms is the first step in seeking help and finding a resolution. Let’s take a look at some of the common signs of ambiguous loss.

Key Takeaway: Ambiguous loss can cause intense emotions such as confusion, guilt, anger, and sadness. It can also lead to physical symptoms like fatigue or insomnia and behavioral changes like avoiding conversations related to the event or increased substance use.

Symptoms of Ambiguous Loss

Human emotion mind map

Physical symptoms associated with ambiguous loss may include insomnia, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks. These physical symptoms often accompany emotional distress, such as sadness and fear. People who experience ambiguous loss may feel disconnected from others and have difficulty trusting people again after their traumatic experience.

The feeling of guilt is common because they may feel responsible for what happened even though it was out of their control. They might also blame themselves for not being able to prevent the event from occurring or for not being able to make things better afterward. In addition to this feeling of guilt, there could be feelings of anger towards the person or situation that caused them pain, which can lead to resentment if left unchecked over time.

Depression is another symptom as individuals tend to withdraw into themselves due to overwhelming emotions like sadness and despair, which can further deepen their sense of loneliness and isolation from others around them. Difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks is also expected since thoughts about the past keep intruding, making it hard for them to focus on anything other than these memories.

Professional help can be sought out when dealing with any kind of trauma, including ambiguous losses. This will enable the development of proper coping strategies while addressing underlying issues causing emotional distress to move forward in life without getting stuck in the past. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and hypnosis are effective in helping individuals work through unresolved issues and process difficult emotions associated with these experiences.

By understanding the symptoms of ambiguous loss and the feelings of complicated grief it exposes, we can begin to explore ways to cope with this challenging experience.

Key Takeaway: Ambiguous loss can cause physical and emotional distress, such as guilt, anger, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Professional help is essential to process difficult emotions associated with ambiguous losses and develop coping strategies for healthier lives.

Coping with Ambiguous Loss

People supporting and comforting male in grief or loss.

Coping with ambiguous loss can be a challenging process. It is important to take time to process your emotions and find healthy ways to cope. Talking to friends or family members about your feelings can help you gain perspective on the situation and provide emotional support. Additionally, engaging in activities that bring you joy, such as listening to music, reading books, or going for walks, can help alleviate some stress.

It is also important to practice self-care. This may include getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals regularly, exercising, and taking breaks from work or other responsibilities. Taking care of yourself physically will help you stay emotionally strong.

Seek professional help, particularly if you experience persistent depression or suicidal thoughts. A therapist or counselor can guide how best to manage these feelings and create strategies for coping and moving forward. Professional counseling sessions are often helpful in providing insight into what happened and helping individuals come to terms with their unresolved grief.

Hypnosis has been used successfully by people to cope with loss. Hypnosis helps individuals access deeper levels of consciousness, allowing them to explore underlying thoughts and beliefs related to traumatic events that could otherwise remain hidden from conscious awareness. Hypnotherapy helps uncover underlying thoughts and allows healing at both physical and mental levels to take place. In addition, hypnosis allows clients to experience greater relaxation and peace even amidst intense emotions, enabling better management of symptoms like anxiety and depression.

Coping with ambiguous loss can be difficult, but many resources can help you through this process. Professional help is one of the most effective ways to manage and overcome feelings of ambiguity.

Key Takeaway: When coping with ambiguous loss, it is important to practice self-care, talk to friends and family members for emotional support, and consider seeking professional help. Additionally, hypnosis can access deeper levels of consciousness to explore underlying thoughts and beliefs related to the traumatic event.

Professional Help for Ambiguous Loss

Over the shoulder view of a female patient with psychologist.

Seek professional help from a therapist or counselor specializing in grief counseling or trauma therapy. A trained professional can provide guidance and support and help you develop coping strategies as you work through the emotions associated with your situation.

For example, a therapist may suggest mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing and meditation to help manage stress levels. They may also encourage journaling to process thoughts and feelings related to your loss. Additionally, they may recommend cognitive-behavioral techniques like challenging negative thought patterns that could prevent you from managing your grief effectively.

Therapists can also provide psychoeducation about common reactions and symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, or confusion. This knowledge can empower individuals to understand their responses better and make informed decisions about how best to cope during difficult times.

In addition to offering individualized treatment plans tailored specifically for each person’s needs, therapists often facilitate group sessions where people facing similar losses come together in a safe space for mutual understanding and emotional support from one another. Participants in a group share, and this can offer alternative coping strategies from their real-world experiences to help others.

Lastly, therapists are available not only during active treatment but after when needed as well; they offer ongoing follow-up care, which is essential for processing complex emotions related to ambiguous losses over time. This provides individuals with an outlet for continued growth throughout their healing journey, even after completing initial treatment sessions.

Professional help can be the first step in creating positive change and moving forward with your life. In the next section, we’ll discuss further how to move forward.

Key Takeaway: Therapists can provide guidance and support to those dealing with ambiguous loss through mindfulness exercises, cognitive-behavioral techniques, hypnosis, psychoeducation, group sessions, and follow-up care.

Moving Forward After Ambiguous Loss

Inner balance concept with hands holding inscribed stones.

It is important to remember that while it may feel like you will never move on from this experience, it is possible to heal over time with patience and self-care practices. Mindfulness meditation can help bring awareness to the present moment, allowing for a greater understanding of your thoughts and feelings related to your loss. Journaling about these experiences can also provide an outlet for expression and reflection as you work through them.

It’s also helpful to find support from friends or family members who understand what you are going through. Talking openly about your emotions surrounding the loss can help you process them more effectively and lead to healing. Additionally, seeking professional help such as therapy or hypnosis may be beneficial if needed; both offer strategies for healthily coping with grief so that you can eventually move forward without feeling overwhelmed by sadness or guilt associated with the loss.

Another critical step in moving forward is learning to forgive yourself and others involved in the situation. This doesn’t mean forgetting what happened but instead accepting it as part of life’s journey, which has shaped who we are today – even if it was painful at times – so that we don’t remain stuck in our pain forever, but instead use it as fuel for growth into something better than before.

Finally, finding activities that bring joy into your life again, such as spending time outdoors or engaging in creative pursuits like painting or writing, or playing music, will further aid in recovery from ambiguous loss by providing positive outlets of expression and connection with others around us once more.

Key Takeaway: To move forward after ambiguous loss, practice self-care such as mindfulness meditation and journaling, seek support from professionals, family, and friends, forgive yourself and others involved in the situation, and find activities that bring joy into your life.

FAQs in Relation to Ambiguous Loss

What is an example of ambiguous loss?

It can occur in situations such as death, divorce, chronic illness, adoption, immigration, and other life transitions. Ambiguous loss can be tough to cope with because it involves uncertainty and a lack of closure. This loss often leads to grief, confusion, and anxiety due to the inability to make sense of what has happened or why it happened. Additionally, society often does not recognize ambiguous losses as actual losses, which can further complicate the healing process for those affected.

What are the symptoms of ambiguous loss?

Ambiguous loss is psychological distress that occurs when an individual experiences a significant and unresolved loss. Symptoms of ambiguous loss can include feelings of confusion, guilt, anger, depression, anxiety, fear, grief, and despair. It can also lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue or insomnia. Individuals may struggle to make decisions or focus on tasks due to their preoccupation with unresolved loss. Additionally, they may experience difficulty in relationships due to their inability to move forward from the situation.

How do you treat ambiguous loss?

Individual therapy counseling or group support sessions provide opportunities for dealing with any persistent loss or grief that impacts a person’s quality and enjoyment of life.

Hypnosis can also be a tool for helping individuals cope with ambiguous loss. It can help them to process their emotions and gain insight into the situation, allowing them to move forward in a more positive direction. Hypnosis also helps to create new thought patterns and behaviors that can reduce stress and anxiety associated with the loss. By focusing on relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and visualization, hypnosis can give an individual a sense of control over their emotions while providing clarity about how best to manage the situation.

What is the difference between ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief?

Ambiguous loss is a type of grief that occurs when there is an absence or lack of closure. It can occur in situations such as divorce, separation, death, abduction, or any other form of loss where the cause and outcome are unknown. Disenfranchised grief is a type of grief experienced by individuals who feel their losses are not acknowledged or validated by society due to the social stigma associated with the circumstances surrounding the loss. This could include mental illness, suicide, miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility. Both ambiguous and disenfranchised losses involve confusion, helplessness, and difficulty in mourning due to a lack of closure or societal recognition.

Navigating Ambiguous Loss – Final Points

Ambiguous loss can be a complex and confusing experience to navigate. Remember that you are not alone in this journey, and many resources are available to help you cope with the pain of this type of loss or grief. Whether through professional help or finding ways to move independently, understanding how ambiguous loss affects us can provide clarity and hope for a brighter future. By taking the time to recognize our feelings, we can begin the process of healing from their impact on our lives.

Additional Resources Related to Ambiguous Loss:

[1] Pauline Boss — Navigating Loss Without Closure >>>

[2] What Is Ambiguous Loss? | >>>

[3] Pattern Interrupt – Breaking the Habit >>>

[4] Ambiguous Loss – Pioneered by Pauline Boss >>>

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Erika Slater CH has been providing hypnosis services online and in her Mashpee MA office since 2004 and is a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists. Erika helps people ready for significant changes in their life achieve their goals and aspirations through the use of hypnosis. She frequently writes in her blog about issues around mental health and wellness. Find out more information about Erika and her services by clicking here >>>

Erika Slater CH
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