Ambiguous Grief

I fought back tears with everything I had. She wouldn’t turn around to look at us, but I have it on good authority she was doing the same (she told me later). We were in a large, bustling airport and my baby girl had her back to us as she stood in the line at security and walked out of our lives forever. I don’t mean to be dramatic because it wasn’t like she was angry at us. She was simply spreading her wings. And we were proud, and distraught and trudging disconsolately through the “depths of despair” in the fashion of one of my literary heroines, Anne Shirley. Baby girl was going off to start her adult life that she had so desperately wanted since her early teenage years. It’s tough being a thirty-year-old trapped in chronological body half as old. And so I continued my unwitting acquaintance with ambiguous grief, though we were not properly introduced until last week.

You most certainly know the meaning of the word grief, even if you have been lucky enough to not have experienced it. And though I have often heard the word ‘ambiguous’ and was reasonably certain it meant ‘undefined’, I looked up the definition because I have an affinity for words, and I want to use them precisely. Merriam-Webster declared that ambiguous had two meanings:

  • Open to more than one interpretation.
  • adj. Doubtful or uncertain.

Thereafter I went searching for a definition of the term ‘ambiguous grief’, which a writer friend of mine had introduced me to via a podcast that her friend had sent her. Here is what I found on a website named after this newly developed branch of psychology: [Ambiguous grief] is the feeling experienced from the loss of a loved one who is still living, accompanied by a change in or death of the relationship.

Go ahead. Read that again. I’ll wait.

So although nobody had actually died, nobody was missing in action or in the prison of dementia, there was a change in relationship with my very-much-alive independent daughter. A loss of connection or a change in a relationship indeed seem worthy of grief even if that grief looks different than that which we associate with physical death. It is indeed loss. Empty nest syndrome. Displaced Parent syndrome (Okay yes, I totally made that up)… Whatever you want to name it. And I realized I had taken on a very ‘stuck’ feeling ever since we returned to the mainland two years ago. My daughter left for her new life 3 short months after we left our beloved island. But that was more than two years ago and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with me. Where is this melancholy coming from? Can we grieve a place as much as we grieve the loss of a person? What if that place reminds you of that person? Double-whammy.

My daughter would leave the island we had come to love with our family and stay the summer in Texas and then we would help her relocate to the Pacific North West. And now we are back at the airport. Loss upon Loss. Expected losses and yet, as a family in which sensory processing sensitivity runs rampant, they were not so easily dismissed…When we left our island I not only lost the ocean, the mountains, and my turtles, I lost a part of my daughter as well. We all long to return. Just visiting would be next to impossible…the island runs through our souls. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never had a relationship with a place where you felt such a bond. It would be a teaser of what we could never hope to have again. That chapter in our lives appears to be closed and to visit would rip open old wounds. That’s my theory anyhow.

When any loss rubs against another or even multiple losses it just compounds the heartbreak. Whether you are grieving a child leaving (physically or emotionally), a parent moving to a care facility because they are slipping away to Alzheimer’s or just beyond the scope of the care you can provide, a job reassignment to a different part of the country or maybe the loss of your health or a cherished friendship…grief wears many faces. It doesn’t help much to belittle our grief or think about the people who “have it worse than we do” if it means denying our legitimate pain. We are all grieving at different times during our lives. Perhaps some of you are grieving the loss of someone in the recent pandemic or the loss of morality and values enveloping our nation as of late.

When gratefulness is much needed but the soul is fully deflated, how do we recover? Is the “new normal” a elusive mirage that we will forever be chasing like the end of the rainbow? How do we honor the One who made us to be “thankful in all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) by setting our eyes on Him? What about when all the verses and platitudes are just not cutting it and getting through a single day is about all that you can muster? And some days you aren’t even sure you can do that?

You and I may be grieving. And that’s okay. But it’s not okay to stay mired in our loss… we will talk about strategies for moving beyond the pain, next time.

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