Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who Is Still Alive

I found this article interesting recalling the grief I experienced while my grandmother struggled with Alzheimer’s, gradually becoming worse and failing to even recognize me.

My guess is that when people read the title of this article they will react with either a, “what are they talking about?  How can someone be grieving someone who is still alive and what the heck is ambiguous grief???” or a “holy crap, yes!  I have felt exactly that way! Thank goodness WYG is finally covering this topic”.  This is one of those topics where if you have been there, you get it and if you haven’t, you don’t.  Either way, hopefully, you’ll read on.

Before we dive in, if you clicked on this post because you feel like you are grieving someone with a terminal illness who has not yet died, there is another WYG article you should read before you read this article.  Check out our article on Anticipatory Grief, which is about the grief that comes when we anticipate that we are going to lose someone.

In contrast to anticipatory grief, there are times in life when someone we love becomes someone we barely recognize.  The person is still physically with us, but psychologically they are gone. There are a range of reasons this can happen.  Some of the most common are things like addiction, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and mental illness.  If you have never lived through loving someone in such a situation, this can be hard to understand.  The person you love is still there, sometimes they ‘look’ sick, sometimes they don’t.  But regardless of how they look, they do things they would never have done, they say things they would never have said, treat you in ways they never would have treated you, and they are not there for you in ways they previously were.  This is sometimes referred to as “ambiguous grief” or “ambiguous loss”.

This may sound very abstract, but when it occurs in your life it is very concrete and real.  Your mom, who always loved and supported you, doesn’t recognize you, understand you or says hurtful things.  You husband, who was always kind and considerate, is now lying and stealing to support an addiction.  You son, who was brilliant and driven, is now struggling with delusions and hallucinations.

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20 thoughts on “Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who Is Still Alive

  1. Lauraine

    One of the things that terrifies me the most is getting to that point in life when people have ambiguous grief about me….thanks for this post, it does a good job explaining it to someone who may not understand or doesn’t know the term


  2. 3yearsgone

    I just recently heard the term Ambiguous Grief, and feel like I’ve finally got a name for what I’ve been struggling with for 3 years. My 12 year old son left me to live with his father and I’ve not seen him since. He lives in the same town but refuses to see me or talk to me or anyone in my family, including my daughter, his sister. My Ex almost completely ignored my son for 7 years; he bribed my son to live with him because his house was in foreclosure and he wanted to stop paying child support. When he first left I was literally devastated, barely able to function at all. I have been stuck in my grief while I fought to get him back. After tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, I lost in court, because our broken system allows children to make adult decisions, even when they are clearly being manipulated and used for money. Every time I see a mother and son together, I have to look away, because I miss my son in my life. Now, 3 years later, he is no longer the boy I knew. He has grown and changed and become a young man who is a stranger to me. Time marches on, he is gone, I grieve and there seems to be no end because he is still alive. He choses every day to reject the family that loves and misses him. I just recently put all his pictures away, because it’s too painful to see the reminders everyday. How do other parents cope with this kind of loss? How can any parent feel justified in perpetuating a situation like this? I worry about the damage this is doing to my son and how it will affect the rest of his life.


  3. bethanyk

    This is SOOO true!!! Ok so I am currently reading lots of your blogs on this site so forgive me if you see five billion likes and comments 🙂


    1. Thanks, I appreciate it. I’ve had this wonderful blog for 10 years and at times I get lazy with it because it dates back to my days of holy hell when I was wracked with depression and consumed by only blackness. I’ve recovered a lot from those days, yet I still have to contend with these friggin migraines. A lightbulb went off (amazing even for me) that I should have started a blog dedicated to chronic pain. I’m enjoying a new change, but then I also miss this blog. Thanks for commenting, See you here or there. Big hugs, Deb

      Liked by 1 person

      1. bethanyk

        My daughter has migraines and I don’t know how anyone lives with them. I am so sorry you have them!
        I thought about different blogs because of my health, my daughter, the PTSD stuff and then i just lumped them all into one.
        I am glad you are out of the darkness of depression. I can see why you want it alll to be separate.


  4. Thank you for this. In emotional neglect I feel we sufferers suffer this grief of an emotional absence of the longed for presence, affection, attention and love at a very deep level. I personally feel it drives addiction in many ways. Its an important awareness to have.



    You are not alone in your feelings although when we’re going through it; we feel like no one can understand. God sends people who understand and may be in greater pain.

    Blessings for healing, Emma

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s possible in more ways than people can imagine! For me, I grieve for an estranged son who was heavily influenced by others. It’s like, although he didn’t die, I very much lost my child. No contact and he lives far away. It’s a grief that most can’t imagine. Thank you for this post.


    1. Although estranged, both of you are feeling grief even though there is no family contact. It’s difficult when there is a disrupt in the family, things are always unsettled, yet sometimes impossible to change. Wishing you the best. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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