How To Deal With Loss Without Closure

There are many ways we lose the people we love. Not all of them come with closure.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | February 2, 2023

Many people come to therapy when they are nursing complex forms of grief that they may not know how to deal with. This manifests itself in questions like:

  • "I wish people knew what it's like to be estranged from my brother. How do I process this when I'm being told to reconnect with him every two seconds?"
  • "When my best friend got addicted to drugs, I lost not just her but a big piece of my childhood. How do I move on?"
  • Sometimes, when a person leaves without explanation, it's like a wound that will never close. How do I begin to heal?"

Humans crave information and closure, especially when it pertains to the loss of a loved one. When we do not get either, we experience an 'ambiguous loss.'

The first step to resolving the grief created by an ambiguous loss is to understand and learn how to identify it. According to Dr. Pauline Boss, who first coined the term in the 1970s, an ambiguous loss falls into one of the following two categories:

Category 1: Physical absence with psychological presence

This type of ambiguous loss describes situations where someone has little to no information or closure about the person they lost. Even though this person is no longer physically present, they still feel psychologically close. This type of loss is difficult to move past because one hasn't, on a psychological level, accepted the loss.

Examples of these types of losses include unexplained disappearances, kidnappings, death in war or genocide, deportation, natural disasters, etc.

This type of loss can take a large mental toll even when you know exactly what happened to the other person. The leap from interacting every day to zero contact may prove to be too big for our minds to make. Divorce, adoption, incarceration, and estrangement are more examples of this kind of loss.

A recent study also puts being 'ghosted,' or facing a complete withdrawal of communication from one's partner, in this category of ambiguous loss.

Category 2: Physical presence with psychological absence

This form of ambiguous loss is a psychological loss. One experiences this loss when one's idea or image of someone ceases to exist. In some cases, someone's personality changes so much that they are unrecognizable to us, like in the case of addiction or dementia. In other cases, there is a death of a 'dream', the imaginary expectation you had of how someone would be.

The trauma caused by this type of ambiguous loss can be particularly heavy because there are limited ways to grieve publicly for it. For instance, there are no funerals or services to mourn the passing of the version of a person inside your head.

How can we deal with ambiguous loss?

Ambiguous loss can be invisible to onlookers and may therefore go unacknowledged, leading to isolation and 'frozen grief.' If you are experiencing or have experienced ambiguous loss, here are some ways you can begin to process it:

  1. Find a way to acknowledge or honor the loss. While not everyone may understand where you are coming from, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the gravity and costs of the loss in some way. Talk to a trusted loved one or a professional mental health practitioner. This will make sure that your loss isn't dismissed or misunderstood.
  2. Be self-compassionate. The only person that truly understands the magnitude of your loss is you. Research explains that being compassionate with yourself and mindful of your triggers can save you a great deal of heartache.
  3. Join a cause. The ambiguous loss of losing a friend to addiction or a family member to dementia can prolong your grief and anger. Research shows that channeling your negative emotions towards a cause – like rehabilitation efforts or dementia awareness – can help you leave your grief behind and create a sense of purpose from the loss itself.