The Long Goodbye – Ambiguous Loss and Grief

by Shelley Read, MSW, RSW

When a person losses a loved one to death, there is closure.  Your loved one has passed away and you begin the mourning process.  You grieve.   Friends and family recognize and understand your loss and offer support.  Your grief and feelings of loss continue, but after a time these feelings typically become less acute.  The grief becomes softer and gentler.  You are able to develop coping mechanisms to come to terms with the loss.

Ambiguous loss is a loss that doesn’t have such clarity.  The loss is not always visible to others nor acknowledged as a valid loss.  It may not even be apparent to those experiencing it.  It is often ongoing.

One of the most common types of ambiguous loss is that of a loved one who has cognitively declined due to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.  Physically your loved one is here and relatively the same.  Emotionally, socially and mentally they may have experienced significant changes.  Because dementia is a progressive disease, a person slowly declines over time.   In the case of a loved one with dementia, there is a series of losses often dependent on the stage of the disease. It is important to recognize the losses as they present themselves – losses in memory, loss of ability to communicate, loss of ability to recognize, loss of help with household chores, loss of income – and allow yourself to grieve them.

Seeking and accepting support from others is critical in dealing with your feelings of loss and grief.  There are many avenues of support.  It may be sharing your feelings with family members who are experiencing the same pain.  You may look to friends who are supportive.  There are also support groups where peers share their experiences of caring for a loved one with dementia.  It may be necessary to get one-to-one counselling from a qualified therapist who specializes in Grief and Loss issues.

The ability to recognize and understand ambiguous grief allows a person the freedom to grieve the unique losses in their own manner.  It gives them the strength to seek help and support to ease their pain and share their experiences.  Most importantly, it allow them to remain connected to their loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.