You walk into a room and something is missing. You can’t quite put a finger on what. But you know, whatever it is, it’s gone.
Ambiguous loss is a little bit like that. You are living your ordinary life, and something silent and extraordinary happens that leads to loss. Sometimes it is something that happens quickly and suddenly like a runaway son. Sometimes it’s something that slips away more quietly and insidiously, like a daughter disappearing into depression. In both cases, the loss is difficult.
The difficult nature of that loss is often compounded by how changeable the loss can be. One day, your son calls from an unknown number to check in, to say “I’m okay, don’t worry,” but doesn’t come home. Another day, your daughter finally comes out of her room and eats breakfast at the table. She takes a shower. Maybe this is over? But then the phone call ends; she is back in her room. What will tomorrow bring?
Ambiguous loss is a loss without closure. It includes two types of loss. One is when someone is physically absent, but psychologically present, like a parent who never changes their phone number with the hope that their missing child will call. The other is when someone is physically present, but psychologically absent, like in the case of a child living with depression or another mental health disorder. There are rarely public rituals or acknowledgements of these kinds of losses and they often include disenfranchised grief.
Learning to live with ambiguous loss is about learning to live with ambiguity. It’s about learning to live in the gray, in the unknown, in changing the things that we can change, while accepting the things that we cannot. It can mean practical things like keeping the same phone number, or bringing your child to therapy when all they do is sit in silence for 45 minutes. It can mean emotional and relational things like asking for help even when you can’t quite put a finger on why you need it. It can mean spiritual things like building trust and meaning with a higher power or a sense of story that began before us and will continue after us.
Living with ambiguous loss requires both courage and vulnerability. Families who live with mental illness have both of these qualities in spades. Often, the work for individual family members is to integrate these qualities within themselves.
“We are the brave and brokenhearted. We are rising strong.” – Brené Brown