Ambiguous Loss
By Sarah Chana Radcliffe
Overview: Unconventional losses still need to be mourned. In this article Sarah Chana Radcliffe uncovers some of the losses we experience that don't require levaya, shiva or shloshim.

There are many types of grief and many things to grieve over. But only some of these are acknowledged through traditional formalities, such as a levayah, shivah, and shloshim for the death of a loved one. A widow or widower is recognized as someone who has suffered a serious, life-altering loss, and is supported by family, friends, and community. Although the pain of the loss isn’t reduced, the comfort received from others strengthens the grieving person and enables them to better withstand his or her suffering.

There are other severe losses that remain unseen or even hidden and are consequently unacknowledged. Losses within this category are known as “ambiguous loss.” They include any of the following:

1. Loss of Relationship. This form of ambiguous loss occurs when a loved one still exists but the relationship has significantly, negatively changed or has ended. This may be caused by such events as divorce, serious physical illness, betrayal, behavior causing public humiliation, estrangement, inaccessibility due to incarceration, hospitalization, or relocation. It also occurs when a loved one is still alive but has “left” due to brain injury, severe mental illness, dementia, or other conditions. In all of these cases, a person has suffered the loss of the companionship, assistance, caring, communication, and love that was an ongoing part of their life.

2. Uncertain Loss. This form of ambiguous loss refers to a situation in which you don’t know whether your loved one is still alive. It occurs when a person has gone missing due to kidnapping or due to mental instability (as might occur in those with serious mental health disorders, those who’ve made suicidal threats, those with severe addictive disorders, those with advanced dementia, and other conditions that cause wandering, disorientation and/or mental confusion). It also occurs when a mentally competent person is missing due to sudden abandonment, political or illegal activity, accidents (such as occur on the road, hiking, traveling, etc.) or other activities resulting in sudden departure without notice or good-byes. The loss involves the removal of the on-going companionship, assistance, caring, communication, and love of the partner, just the same as occurs in a death or in the loss of a relationship as described above. However, uncertainty is added to the suffering of this kind of loss, since there is hope that the relationship will be reinstated with the return of the lost loved one and fear that it never will be.

3. Loss of Life as One Has Known It. Ambiguous loss of this kind involves mourning for the life one had. This may occur when one moves countries, changes careers or workplaces, goes through upheavals such as pandemics or wars, undergoes intense financial or status changes, or endures natural disasters. Loss of normal routines, people, comforts, and way of life cause a painful destabilization and grief.

Coping with Ambiguous Loss
Because ambiguous loss is rarely identified as a true loss, even the sufferer may not know how to respond to it. “No one has died. I shouldn’t be feeling like a widow. Yes, my husband is very sick and no longer a partner in life, but he’s still here. I don’t know why I’m crying all the time.”

This woman is crying because she’s mourning the loss of her marriage as she knew it. Not too long ago, she had a partner to share the day’s events with, to make future plans with, to share responsibilities with, to parent with, to be affectionate with, to enjoy life with. Now she is a caretaker to a person whose pain, incapacitation, and suffering turn him inward. She’s as alone in her life as a widow, but her status is unrecognized by both herself and her community.

One important step to take toward healing is to sit down and write about all the losses, large and small, that you’re experiencing. Writing it out recognizes, names, and honors the true loss and begins to release the pain. This can be an emotionally difficult process but tends to resolve the heavy and enduring burden of unprocessed, unacknowledged pain.

Similarly, seeking support from a therapist, support group, or dedicated online community can ease the burden of isolation while continuing to identify and heal losses. Acknowledging the loss to oneself is the necessary precursor to compassionate self-embrace and self-care. The loss is real, even though no death certificate affirms it. Recovery takes time; broken hearts deeply hurt body, mind, and soul.

Published with permission from Mishpacha Magazine.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 875)

Sarah Chana Radcliffe
Bio for SC Radcliffe - Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M. Ed., C. Psych., is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada and weekly family-life columnist for Family First. She is the author of the HarperCollins Publications “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” and “The Fear Fix,” as well as seven books on Jewish family life and emotional well-being. She is also the author of the e-book “Better Behavior Now!” and the creator of the popular “Daily Parenting Posts” email for parents. She conducts online webinars through Jewish Workshops on parenting, marriage and mental health, speaks locally and internationally on these topics, and counsels parents, couples and individuals. To learn more, visit her website at