Ambiguous Grief

Unresolved loss and grief can be caused by situations such as war, displacement, divorce and parental alienation.  A loved one could be missing or may have become unrecognizable through illness, injury or addiction.  We still love the person, yet we miss them along with the relationship that has been lost.  In these circumstances, we experience ambiguous grief and the sense of loss brings with it a range of feelings, including sadness, anger, fear, shame, anxiety, frustration, guilt, resentment or regret.

Like many others, I’ve endured the experience of a loved one being both present and absent at the same time.  I was very fortunate to find my way to the work of Carol Lamb and to a group of teachers and therapists, who helped me find a crucial measure of healing and understanding.  When facing challenging situations that cannot be resolved, the stress and trauma can be debilitating.  We need to find ways of building strength and stamina and to overcome feelings of helplessness.  Here is a part of my story and at the end I provide links to some practical resources and information.

 Drawing Breath

One day I was looking through a drawer at home when I found a photograph of my eldest son.  It was a panoramic view, taken when he was nine and we were on holiday in a beautiful and remote part of Scotland.  Outside our little cottage, above the pebbled shore and lapping waves, he was holding onto a rope swing, poised to launch himself into the air one more time.  He looked relaxed and happy in a scene that was delightfully fresh and innocent.  I could recall the moment I took the photograph and seeing it again made me catch my breath.  I shut the drawer and had to steady myself, struggling to breathe, so visceral was the feeling of grief; so vast was the gulf between the smiling boy at the water’s edge and the desperately ill young man he’d since become.

My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, began taking drugs and later became addicted to heroin.  Living with the downward spiral of his mental illness and drug addiction has been harrowing.  The dire situations that we have endured over the years are amongst some of the worst imaginable for a family.  Amongst other things, he has been homeless, got himself arrested, gone missing, been repeatedly sectioned, jumped from the second floor of a building to escape a beating, smashing his feet and having to crawl through a muddy wasteland to get help.  Through it all I’ve had to find ways to hold him close to my heart and also maintain firm boundaries or keep a distance.  I have grappled with the confusion of having a loved one who is both here and gone.

When I first came across the phrase ‘Ambiguous Grief’, I’d lived with the paradoxical nature of it all for a long time.  At its simplest, the phrase describes grieving for someone who is still alive.  It rang a bell and like many others who’ve found themselves in this limbo, I was surprised and slightly relieved to discover that someone had provided a name for it.  The psychologist who coined the term says: “Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process.  People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.”  I was well aware that it requires courage and much help to be able to ‘unfreeze’.

After some years, the experience of grieving for my lovely, lost boy almost took my breath away completely, for once and for all.  I became seriously ill with a rare condition.  A massive tumour formed in my chest cavity, collapsing my lung, displacing my heart and other internal organs and leaving me barely able to draw breath.  In recovery after major surgery, I had to learn to do things differently.  I needed to start putting my own health first and to protect myself.

At one time my heart would lurch every time I heard an ambulance with wailing sirens go by and I admit that it still does when the doorbell rings.  You long to see someone but the individual who turns up on the doorstep appears to be an imposter and not the person you’d hoped for at all.  The loved one is present in absence and absent in presence.  Once, when I’d had to report my son as missing, and as being a danger to himself and possibly others, I wrote: ‘Even though I don’t know where you are, maybe comatose, lying amongst litter on a forlorn mattress, or cold beneath the soil in a quiet wood ~ yet still you lie here peacefully, murmuring in my lap, with your beauty intact.‘

Sometimes in life we face a situation that we are unable to resolve and yet we aren’t able to put it down or walk away from it.  There is, as they say, no closure.  We know we’ll have to live with the condition and must find a way to carry it, without becoming burdened, bent or broken.  We have to learn to keep our hearts open while still defining limits.  Often there are no right answers to the predicaments we find ourselves in.  We need to respond in the moment, doing what feels best in any given situation and in everyone’s best interests.  Living with ambiguous grief tests our ability for acceptance and surrender and this is no small matter.

It is important to find tools that can help us connect to a deep peace within ourselves and not be swamped by others or overwhelmed by events.  We come to understand that we are not able to solve everything, to make things right or to ‘be there’ for everyone.  We must learn to hand over to a power greater than ourselves.  For myself, I found meditation, energy alignment and vocal toning to be lifesaving.  Creative work, particularly painting, collage and writing, sustains me.

The last time my son came to the house, I didn’t open the door.  We were in lockdown during a pandemic and we spoke through the glass panel, gazing intently at one another.  He said I looked older.  He looked less dishevelled than I have sometimes seen him.  I passed some things through the letterbox.  These few minutes were wrenching and are seared on my memory.  When he left, I waved to him through the glass panel of the door.  He turned at the corner and called out, “’Bye Mum!”

It was such a brief moment, such a small thing but everything suddenly seemed normal and for a little while that broke me.  Here was a thread to the son I used to know and it triggered a tsunami of memories.  In a flash, there he was again, the sweet boy who used to blow me a kiss and clasp his own arms to indicate a goodbye hug.  My heart twanged and I wanted to run after him but I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.  I cried for us both and because I missed him so much.

I remember another time when I had to talk with him through the glass panel of a door.  It was on one of the occasions when he’d been sectioned and I was visiting him in the mental health unit of a hospital.  I took him a bag of food and a few provisions and it was being searched by one of the nurses, to check that I wasn’t smuggling anything in.  We had to stay on opposite sides of the heavy door and through the thick glass he looked bewildered, lost and alone.

I’ve had many phone calls from hospitals and police stations.  Officials have been mostly understanding and only occasionally judgmental or harsh.  I’ll always remember the kindness of the doctor on duty when I went to collect my son from A&E one time, to find him looking like a bundle of rags in the corner of a room.  Everyone dealing with similar circumstances will have a long and dire list of anguishes, born of navigating a way through mazes of officialdom. In these uncertain times, I’m sure that more and more people are facing impossible situations and experiencing such ongoing trauma and stress.  Everyone finds their own ways of living with burning questions that have no answer; of accepting that there is no solution, while still remaining hopeful; of taking responsibility yet letting go of unreasonable expectations, whether coming from yourself or the world at large.  We each cobble together our own, unique raft to help us remain afloat on these murky and dangerous waters.

I know it can feel bleak and lonely, wondering what is the best thing to do in extraordinary, baffling and distressing situations.  Often, there are thorny decisions to be made, taking into consideration the needs and wellbeing of a whole range of people.  Many times a course of action has clashed violently with my protective, motherly instincts and yet needed to be taken if I was not to collude with destructive behaviours.  A friend told me that she was repeatedly trying to help her daughter, only to eventually realise that the girl wanted to be ‘in the dark’; she felt comfortable there and would constantly keep returning.  I remembered the moment when this had dawned on me, too.  I was at the sink, draining a pan of vegetables into a colander and watching the steaming water pour through the holes.  It struck me that no matter how much energy or effort I expended, it would always be just like pouring water into a sieve.

One time my son rang up and asked if his younger brother was around, saying he missed his family.  He asked after my health and said he loved me.  His speech was slurred and it wasn’t long before he was asking for money.  Refusing him, turning him away, is always hard.  I said: “No, I don’t have any money to give you.”  He replied: “I’m sorry for being an idiot.  It’s just that I’m so confused.”

Another time when he rang up, desperate for money and with a tormented tale, I agreed to drive to the nearby railway station with a twenty-pound-note.  Meeting with him was alarming, like greeting an apparition.  He appeared like a wraith, loping out of a dull fog that clung to his skin, hair, clothes, speech.  His eyes were milky and dim, lips chalky and face ashen, with a scab in the middle of his forehead, from banging his head against a wall.  He was smelly and talking to him was unnerving and disjointed.

Then he said I love you and I said I love you, too.  He reached out and touched the back of my hand before turning away, scrambling awkwardly over a high fence and disappearing from sight.  I heard a thud as he landed on the other side.  I remembered him climbing onto that rope swing many years ago, laughing with abandon as he jumped and landed on the grass, so bright, lively and funny.  That lovely, tinted memory was like watching a film from the archives but I could only take a quick peek.  Any longer and it would be hard to breathe and I’d found that the knack was to keep breathing!

With mental health and drug issues on the increase, I often feel that there will be many parents of young, or not so young, adults who feel anxious and frustrated and may be struggling to cope.  It is easy to become emotionally overwhelmed at not being able to effectively help and to become stuck in grief, guilt and shame.  When we are in crisis and under stress, it can feel as though there are no choices but we always do have choices, even though they may not be easy to make.

I am grateful that in finding my way to excellent holistic therapists, I was also able to learn about the human energy field and soul memory.  I went on to study metaphysics and to train in holistic therapies, including Soul Recall with The Academy of Spiritual Sciences.   Along the way I gained some understandings that have been vital for my own health and growth.  I came to know that we return to earth in physical incarnations repeatedly and either we are learning and evolving or else repeating our mistakes.  Souls encounter one another again and again in different guises.  Every person has made their own choices, which have brought them to the present juncture and we have been on all sides of the many and various conflicts.

It is painful to watch a loved one, who may be lost and trying to find their way.  We can aspire to maintain empathy, without losing ourselves in their pain or falling into the deep hole that they may keep on digging.  However close the relationship has been, we need to put boundaries in place and not allow ourselves to become crippled by a negative attachment to the person and the problem.  As Ram Dass put it: I can do nothing for you but work on myself.  You can do nothing for me but work on yourself.”

When we can find some peace and healing for ourselves, we are better able to offer constructive help to another person.  It helps enormously if we have someone we can talk to, who cares about our wellbeing.  We are not required to sacrifice our lives to suffering on behalf of another person who carries on behaving destructively.  It is part of our healing to feel our grief deeply, rather than trying to dampen it down but then also to avoid getting completely lost in it, so that we are able to release harmful attachments and move forward.  As we do so, it takes practice to see a situation and our role in it ever more clearly and to keep taking steps to a healthier detachment.  It is important to know that we will always have work to do, to search out the inner blocks and resistances that get in the way of healing and expanding our awareness.

I recommend doing something creative and enjoyable to fill the place that anxiety would occupy.  It is vital to keep making choices for oneself that are positive and nourishing, whether it is cooking, walking, dancing, painting, music, sewing, gardening, writing, knitting, whittling wood, yoga, singing… The main thing is that we are tuning in to our own strength and creativity.  In this way, we may still face crises and feel upset at times but we bounce back better.  For myself, I had to give up the belief that I must find the ever-elusive solution to the predicament myself.  I needed to become more humble and learn to consistently call on assistance from the spiritual realms and hand over to a higher power.  Learning to meditate was a turning point for me, as I came to realise that I can tune in to a higher consciousness and be guided by intuition.  The Emerald Alignment has been key and I continue to practise this simple and powerful method of energy alignment every day.

I found that it is possible to really feel the emotions that arise and acknowledge what I’ve been going through but at the same time refuse to be defined by it.  I remember realising that I can feel sadness and still choose peace, allowing the paradoxical nature of it all.  This is part of learning to live with ambiguous grief and still thrive.  Now I can look at the photograph of my young son on the rope swing all those summers ago and breathe in the beauty of it, knowing that no matter what has happened in the intervening years, that moment still belongs to us both, is held in our hearts and reverberates through time.

The following are links to helpful resources and information:
Art and Alignment
Meditation Resources

Living Memory Research Trust:
Energy Alignment 
Training Manuals

The Journey of the Soul  ‘Born Remembering’ by Carol Lamb




Copyright ©Louise Oliver 2003 – 2023

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