A Guide To Ambiguous Grief

"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness..."

Grief is something that we’ve all experienced. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely dealt with a loss of some kind. Whether it’s a loved one passing away or the death of a relationship, grief can come in many forms. However, there is one form of grief that’s not talked about often – ambiguous grief.

What is Ambiguous Grief?

When we think of grief, we default to the feelings we experience after the death of someone close to us. However, ambiguous grief is felt when you’re grieving someone who is still alive. It leaves a sense of deep loss without closure. This is extremely prominent for those who have experienced a stroke and were left with a variety of deficits such as aphasia and/or physical challenges.

Sadness grips you because you’re no longer able to do certain things you used to do. As a result, your life is drastically different than it was before. However, this doesn’t mean life no longer has meaning; it means it’s taken on a new form until you progress in your recovery.

Anna here – As someone who’s a caregiver to my husband with aphasia, I had and still have feelings of ambiguous grief. For a long time, I had no idea there was even a name for what I was feeling, but I was comforted to know others in our aphasia community were having similar feelings of immense loss of a life they thought they’d live. This is common for caregivers, family members, and those who are affected by a life-altering event.

The thing about ambiguous grief is that, unlike traditional grief, the grieving process seems infinite. There’s no finality that triggers the mind to heal.

The Five Stages of Traditional Grief

Let’s refresh your memory about traditional grief. The traditional grieving process goes through five stages:

  • Denial: No one likes to think about death. It’s not a pleasant topic, so when someone close to you passes away or has a terminal condition, denial can seem like a better option than dealing with reality. It’s also somewhat of a survival mechanism until your mind can come to terms with the weight of what’s actually happening.
  • Anger: Death, like many things in life, feels unfair. And it’s normal to be angry about that. Especially if someone is taken too soon. This can lead to a lot of anger and resentment.
  • Bargaining: After the anger passes, we are desperate to take control and change our path to emotional heartache. This comes from a last-ditch effort to control the situation and avoid the inevitable pain that comes with grief. We may bargain with God or with doctors to seek a way out of the inevitable.
  • Depression: After the emotions settle, a sense of calmness and clarity sets in where loss feels more present and unavoidable. This can lead to feelings of depression and a need to withdraw from others to come to terms with emotions that have been building throughout the process.
  • Acceptance: The final stage of grief is acceptance. After this stage, it may feel acceptable to move on with life as you have a sense of closure. This doesn’t mean that sadness doesn’t rear its ugly head now and again, but the healing process can truly begin at this point.

Why Ambiguous Grief Is So Tough

With traditional grief, there is a sense of closure after working through the five stages of grief. However, with ambiguous grief, there is no closure.

Anna here – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ugly cried after listening to a voicemail my husband left me before his stroke. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss certain aspects of who he used to be. I miss talking on the phone and having verbal discussions without the threat of miscommunication from the aphasia. And most importantly, I grieve the life he was supposed to have before his stroke at the age of 34 (so young). He had such a promising career path, and then his whole life was turned upside down.

If I’m being totally honest, over the past four years, I’ve gone through these stages of grief multiple times. Not to mention the “triggers” that remind you of the past that seem to hit you at the most socially unacceptable moments. Like in the produce section of the grocery store. Before you know it, you’re crying like a crazy person over cantaloupes. If you can’t tell, I’ve been there, and I constantly struggle with ambiguous grief. And if you’re reading this, you might be too. The good news is there are a few methods to cope, so you don’t find yourself embarrassed in public places like me.

Coping with Ambiguous Grief

So, how do you cope with what seems like never-ending sadness and grief?

  1. Give yourself emotional grace. Our society has groomed us to numb the pain or put a band-aid over the problem. In order to get to the root of your emotions and truly work through them, you have to face them. But give yourself grace. 

Anna here – I’m a huge proponent of feeling your feelings. I wasn’t always this way. I often wanted the quickest solution, seeking out anti-depressants or medications to numb the pain. Please don’t misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with those options, as I feel there are times when they are very much needed. However, my point is that you shouldn’t feel bad for feeling sad or angry. If those emotions are left unchecked, it can create a domino effect of unpleasant results that manifest in the mind and body. So, it’s important to cope with those feelings in a healthy way and not stay in those dark places. Make yourself go for a walk or call a close friend that you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. Journaling your feelings is another coping mechanism. You’d be surprised how cathartic it can be to get all those feelings out on paper and out of your head where they are prone to do serious damage.

  1. Practice having a thankful heart. When it seems like so much is going wrong in life and there’s so much pain to be felt, it’s tempting (and easy) to project a bitter spirit. However, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for. Meditate on the fact that you have even the simplest of things like a roof over your head, running water, and food to eat. This shifts your mindset from a negative one to a positive one. Do you have a dog that you cuddle with that seems to be the only one who understands you? Focus on that sweet little pup! Another helpful tip is to keep a gratitude journal to bring forth positive perspectives instead of getting bogged down in the negative details.
  2. Keep hope. Hope is a powerful word. Without it, we’d lose our sense of motivation and direction. Once hope is lost, the mind goes down the rabbit hole of despair and depression. Having a heart filled with hope keeps your mind out of the danger zone of damaging emotions and keeps you on the right path to recovery.
  3. Talk with a counselor. There’s no shame in seeking out a counselor to share your feelings. However, it can be a process to find the right fit for you, so be patient and expect to give a couple of people a try before you find your counselor soul mate. Talk with your insurance first to see what they will cover, build a budget, and research potential candidates that fit into those parameters.

Friend, let me speak some truth into your life as we wrap this up. You are strong and you have the tools you need to conquer ambiguous grief. You will recover, and you will have a life worth living. It may not be the one you envisioned, but it'll be filled with beautiful moments of triumph, joy, and purpose.

Are you dealing with traditional or ambiguous grief? What helpful tips or resources have gotten you through tough times? Feel free to leave a comment below!

We hope we’ve been able to shed light on the definition of ambiguous grief and how to cope with it. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email us at info@aphasiareaders.com. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for the latest news from Aphasia Readers! If you’re interested in ordering one of our adult-relevant reading-aloud books, you can order a copy HERE!

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