What is Ambiguous Grief? – By Sophia Caudle, PhD, LPC-S, CSAT-S

Have you ever lost someone that you loved very much…..and he/she is still alive? Has one of your loved ones ever completely changed their personality, and thus your relationship is not the same? Do you love someone who you cannot be with, because it will jeopardize your recovery? If you answered, ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, you have experienced ambiguous grief.

Ambiguous grief is the grief experienced from the loss of a loved one, who is still alive, accompanied by a change or death of the relationship.

© (Caudle & Sarazin, 2018).

Ambiguous grief is typically not identified as grief when we are feeling it. Mental health clinicians might misdiagnose ambiguous grief as depression or trauma, and many others of us have never heard the term ‘ambiguous grief’. Pauline Boss, coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ which is the loss that occurs without closure or understanding, however the feeling state of ambiguous grief has not been defined or studied until now (Caudle & Sarazin, 2018).

Grief is different than trauma or depression. Grief is a natural emotion of deep sadness, most commonly understood and accepted as what we feel after a loved one has died. Due to the fact that in order for ambiguous grief to apply, by definition, there is no death of a loved one; this is why we, therapists and people in general, may have not until now, recognized the signs and symptoms of grief in many people. Instead, we may have prolonged a diagnosis of PTSD or made incorrect assumptions about why someone was feeling certain feelings due to, what we now can understand, is ambiguous loss.

Understanding about ambiguous grief and being able to determine if this may be an emotion you are feeling or have felt, is very important. First, it is critical to be able identify what we feel, because once we are aware of a feeling, then we can begin to accept, understand, and process through. If ambiguous grief is what you feel or what you have felt, it is so important to give yourself permission to grieve a person who is not dead, or a relationship that has changed/terminated. Far too often when loss of a cherished relationship occurs, we are either not allowed time to feel the grief, or we are labeled as traumatized, depressed or weak, when really what we may have needed was the knowledge of ambiguous grief and permission to grieve the loss. Grief implies a process of moving through the feelings, which can be framed in a more empowering manner than being diagnosed with a very serious condition. The knowledge of ambiguous loss and ambiguous grief can allow us the permission to feel the grief with the freedom and knowledge that it is alright to grieve someone who is still living.

How Do We Know if We Are Feeling Ambiguous Grief?

If you have experienced the loss of someone who is very special to you, and they are still alive, then the sadness you felt might have been due to ambiguous grief. If a loved one or person in your life has changed so drastically, that even though you see them and talk to them, yet you can not really recognize them by their personality or behaviors, and you feel sadness or intense confusion, then you may be experiencing ambiguous grief. Addiction in a loved one is a common way people experience ambiguous grief. This can especially be so for sex addiction, where the addict may appear the same, but his/her behaviors are completely opposite what you trusted and believed, and the relationship is changed forever. Other more specific examples of ambiguous grief are what is felt after divorce, discovery of an infidelity or betrayal of trust, the witnessing of a loved one’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s Disease, or other sickness, or the change or termination of a relationship, such as moving away from friends. These are all life experiences worthy of allowing ourselves’ permission to grieve.

If you have experienced loss such as these, and you felt intense sadness or emptiness, then it is likely that you felt ambiguous grief.

Simply put, grief is not only felt when a living thing dies, grief is also very much felt when we lose someone who is still alive, just not in the same manner as they were in the past.

If you think you are either experiencing, or have experienced Ambiguous Grief, please complete this very brief survey and help us learn more about ambiguous grief, so we can all benefit from more knowledge on this new topic, and more people can be helped. Thank you!

Find the survey here

By Sophia Caudle, PhD, LPC-S, CSAT-S



Dr Sophia Caudle

About Dr Sophia Caudle

Dr. Sophia D. Caudle is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Supervisor, and Educational Consultant. Under her leadership, Bull City Psychotherapy specializes in individual and group counseling for adults, adolescents, and couples. Dr. Caudle also supervises counselors who are in the process of obtaining their License in Professional Counseling.
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  1. The survey Is closed but great article!

  2. One more thing,every Thursday at noon ET, I facilitate the Codependency, Grief and Relationships meeting on ITR. We discuss ambiguous grief when it comes up. Please join us!:)

  3. I’m so glad! More to come very soon with further explanations and ways to cope and move through.

  4. Thank you. The article was helpful.

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