At each stage of our lifespan we are presented with the opportunity to change. These changes are different for each of us, and as we grow older, change is often accompanied by loss.

Some of that loss is concrete, like the death of dear friends, spouses, partners and loved ones. My husband and I lost three of our parents within a two-year span.

Fortunately, they all lived into their 90s. While we were terribly sad to lose them, it was not unexpected. There was a traditional memorial or funeral and a time set aside for mourning and memory-sharing. Friends and acquaintances acknowledged and respected our emotional needs.

 
 

Recently, I have been learning about another kind of loss which can be even more devastating – ambiguous loss. An example of ambiguous loss is when someone to whom we are close falls victim to Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, we no longer know or recognize them, nor they us.

This, too, is loss, even though the person living with Alzheimer’s is still with us in their physical presence. When they die though, it seems our traditional death rituals somehow seem less than satisfying.

Manifestations of Ambiguous Loss

Here are some other manifestations of ambiguous loss:

Estrangement

Even without Alzheimer’s in the picture, when parents and/or children cut off ties – or at the least maintain great distance from each other – this is also a type of ambiguous loss.

The son, daughter or parent we once knew is absent, yet they are still there. When siblings or other family members are estranged from each other, this is also ambiguous loss.

MIA’s

When a loved one is missing in action, was kidnapped, or has disappeared, there is also ambiguous loss.

Disasters

Think of 9/11 and all the people who did not know if their loved ones were alive. Even when they had to assume that their loved one had perished, there was no body to bury.

Political Upheaval

I’ve given a lot of thought to political upheaval of late. Many people feel the loss of country and democracy in these turbulent times, yet our country is still here.

Divorce

Young children of divorce very often experience ambiguous loss, whether they can express it. Mom or Dad is gone, yet still here.

Loss Is Natural

As we age, we are bound to encounter both traditional and ambiguous loss. This is only natural. Death can become an everyday occurrence for the old and the elderly.

Yet there are other types of loss that are often not acknowledged. Friends who are still very much alive may have compromised mobility or may experience other limiting conditions.

Your tennis partner of 20 years can no longer play. A bridge partner is losing his eyesight, and it becomes too difficult for him to stay in the game. Sally’s hearing loss is too severe for her to be able to have a phone conversation.

Or maybe you yourself are dealing with similar issues. You miss your old self – yet you are still very much here, very much alive, but you are not the same.

Steps to Mitigating the Pain of Ambiguous Loss

What can one do to mitigate the pain of ambiguous loss? In her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Pauline Boss describes ambiguous loss as “frozen grief.” This grief needs to be acknowledged and people need to mourn the loss in a very real sense.

Recently, when people offered condolences to a friend whose mom died after a long illness that left her unable to communicate for years, my friend would respond, “You know, we said good-bye to her a long time ago. We’ve already mourned our loss.”

Loss Is an Opportunity to Change

The next step is to use the space created by the loss to discover new things; to change and grow. In other words, see the loss as an opportunity for change. There is change that we plan for, like retirement, while other change is forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control.

In his 80s, my Dad began a physical and cognitive decline. An aide was brought in to help him with all the activities of daily living that he could no longer perform on his own.

During that time, my Mom, also in her 80s, became severely depressed. Because of her mental state, we had to take her car keys away. She voluntarily gave my sister and me the task of taking care of her finances, a task my Dad could no longer perform. Her depression was an expression of her grief over all that she had lost.

There was another woman taking charge in her home, and Dad was no longer the same husband she had lived with for over 60 years. With the proper mental health care, important for many of us in times of grief, she did get through that period. The first step for her was to acknowledge that she was experiencing a great loss.

Storms Come and Go

It was only a few years later that Mom and Dad were faced with another unimaginable loss. When Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of Long Island in 2012, they were still “aging-in-place” in their own home in Long Beach, NY. Living only a couple of blocks from the ocean, they witnessed the life they knew being completely devastated. They would never be able to go home again.

After several months of living in a temporary situation next door to me, Mom and Dad had the opportunity to move into an excellent nursing residence. When presented with this option, Mom became anxious – yet she understood that it was the right thing for both herself and my Dad.

To everyone’s surprise and relief, Mom fully embraced her new life. She made new girlfriends (all her long-time friends had died), took classes and went on shopping trips. She was deaf and frail and used an ambulator to aid her walking. Her cognition, however, was excellent.

Her constant fretting about my Dad had ceased. She visited him every day and was his best advocate. Most remarkably, her new best friend at the nursing home was born deaf and was teaching Mom American Sign Language!

Remember the bridge player whose eyesight was failing? His bridge partner decided they would use the extra time created by the loss. These two “old men” tentatively stepped into the world of technology. Today they play bridge on their laptops.

All the assistive technical devices – from voice recognition to large type screens and a digital bridge app – made it possible for the two friends to keep their game going for many years to come. They turned the loss into a great opportunity to learn and grow.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Aging does not stop growth and change, although there is an ageist part of society that keeps the myth about old dogs and new tricks alive. Living a full life means changing and growing.

Whether the losses are traditional or ambiguous, there is always an opportunity to learn new things. With a little help from family, friends and professionals, we can still grow throughout our lives – our whole lives!

Have you experienced a loss recently? Have you experienced any episodes of ambiguous loss? Did they feel better or worse than their traditional counterparts? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

Alice FisherAlice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W., is the founder of The Radical Age Movement which is dedicated to confronting and eliminating the ageism in our society. This new movement seeks to change the way older adults are perceived and treated in society, and also the implications for social practices and government policy.

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