Post written by; Samantha Tankenoff, MS, ALMFT

Grief and loss are two of the most painful, yet unfortunately inevitable feelings of life. They both can coincide in small everyday activities such as missing out on a family dinner, or also can occur in larger aspects of life including the death of a loved one. During this painful time it can be difficult to navigate next steps. Some steps may be clear, such as continuing with family dinner as planned, or fulfilling loved ones wishes on being laid to rest. We all know that life does not have clear steps after a loss. What if you are experiencing loss, but lacking closure? This is referred to as ambiguous loss and can be understood as a loss that is either unclear and/or unverified. It can be either psychological ambiguous loss or physical ambiguous loss.

Individuals experiencing psychological ambiguous loss are experiencing grief around one’s mental or emotional absence. Perhaps your partner is highly preoccupied with work and consistently missing out on family bonding. Maybe you have a loved one suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s. While your loved one is still physically present in your life, much of the substance of your relationship to one another such as personality, memories and quality time are impaired or missing.

 Individuals experiencing physical ambiguous loss are experiencing grief around the physical absence of their loved one. You may experience this if you’re going through a divorce and taking physical distance from your ex-partner. This type of loss can also present in tragic situations such as one’s disappearances following natural disasters. In these scenarios your loved ones are physically absent from your life but emotionally present. 

 Psychological and physical ambiguous loss are both significant and heavy with grief. They take a toll on one’s mental and physical health. So, what can you do if you find yourself identifying with ambiguous loss? 


  • Acknowledge that what you are going through is very difficult. People tend to avoid acknowledging their pain in hopes that it will go away. This unfortunately does not work and can invalidate your experience. You deserve recognition that what you are going through is unfair and challenging. 


  • Give yourself the space to grieve and have conflicting emotions. What you are going through is a loss. If you feel sad, that’s ok. If you feel mad it makes sense! You may also have what appears to be conflicting emotions at the same time such as happiness and sadness. It’s ok that those exist in you, and they don’t have to compete with one another. Your emotions will ebb and flow in their intensity just as they do with other scenarios and when experiencing traditional grief.


  • Do what is right for you. Everyone has different beliefs, comfort levels and processes when coping with ambiguous loss. You do not have to feel the same way or process similarly to those around you.


  • Think about how you can accomplish individual closure. Unfortunately, you may never receive the closure you are looking for with your specific ambiguous loss. Think of ways you can try and achieve individual closure. Activities such as writing a letter to your absent loved one or if you are spiritual finding closure within your faith and or religion can be considered as a few of many personal options. While imperfect, exploring individual closure can provide you with comfort and help you remember your loved ones with joy.


  • If you are struggling to cope or to receive individual closure, seek out professional support. The grief you are experiencing is valid and it can be overwhelming to navigate on your own. Speak with your loved ones and get in touch with a professional as needed, because help and support is available!



Please note that this content is for informational purposes, and not a substitute for treatment.  If you are in need of mental health treatment, please seek out a provider in your area.  For those located near Chicago, you may book online through our Schedule an Appointment page.

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