I’ve experienced concrete losses, but my deepest and most difficult experiences with loss have all been ambiguous.
I didn’t understand this about myself until I noticed a pattern in my life callings and the way my reactions have all been connected.
If you want to understand ambiguous grief, one example would be loving someone who is a drug addict. Another is loving someone who is mentally ill—whether it is your spouse, parent, child, sibling, relative, or friend. The person you love more than life itself may be there one minute, but are gone the next. They may be present and connected, and then they are not. You know who they are, and then you do not. These phases and seasons may come and go, and you may experience a grief cycle each time the person you love is no longer present. Sometimes there are situations of loss that happen all at once with no repeat cycles and the person you love is forever gone to you even tho they are still alive.
For me in my ambiguous grief cycles I have typically remained rutted in a stage of my grief for far too long as I didn’t comprehend what was happening to me because of the situation—usually I’d be stuck in something like denial for so long that over time my trauma from the loss compounded and turned into PTSD of its own with triggers that are associated with loss.
The problem that compounded grief has created for me is that at times love has come to be associated only with pain. When I was only a young kid, I wrote in my journal that “Love IS pain.” In recent years, even happy memories from old pictures of good times have brought up serious and true pain for me. That is something I am actively working on changing in myself. Often I have to remind myself to be happy that something happened instead of hyper-focusing on my sadness that it is over. That reminder alone helps me enjoy simple life experiences like watching my children as they grow instead of perpetually grieving that they change and grow and being sad that the last season I shared with them is over.
At any rate—a few other examples of ambiguous grief could be: losing someone because of brain injury, losing someone to kidnapping, losing someone to a life altering disease like Alzheimer’s, or having a child with a special needs diagnosis like Autism can also be a cause and catalyst of ambiguous grief. The most “sugar coated” way I’ve heard it described is “the loss of a dream”. That’s how miscarriage was presented to me—three times in a row. By my 4th miscarriage I understood that miscarriage was a concrete loss. I lost CHILDREN, not “only a dream”. But even so, most of my miscarriages were grieved ambiguously because they were such abstract experiences. I didn’t actually get to hold my babies to say goodbye, so the experience was like talking myself out of something that didn’t happen except it DID happen and I had a full grief cycle over every lost child, but couldn’t validate myself because the experience itself was so abstract for me. It took me much longer than it should have to accept and understand what I was experiencing, let alone accept what had actually happened. Part of the length of my grief was prolonged as well because the support, awareness, and understanding I needed to help me achieve acceptance wasn’t present in my circles (or in myself) until later.
It’s like my destiny is to learn how to overcome this weakness of mine. The patterns in my life callings have seemed to lead me to have to face ambiguous grief and not shrink from it.
For example—I am a teacher. Every single year I love and let go (lose) people I have attached and bonded to and dearly love. Have you ever tried to be strong as you’ve experienced loss over 300 little people at a time? Not easy. Maybe it’s even harder with 24 little people you’ve had all day every day for a year—an even closer bond creates a more intense loss? Maybe.
Have you ever tried to be a foster parent? To love without reservation, and at full throttle in the thick of the fire like they’re your forever child (since that’s the kind of love they deserve) and then lose them because they weren’t actually destined to be your forever child?
These are just a couple examples of my life callings that have been leading me to discover what breaks me down and what I need and want to overcome.
I talk to God a lot. Nothing has made me question Him or believe in Him more than the struggles that came to me being an adoptive parent.
I’ve said to Him, “Make my heart whole.”
And He said, “You ARE whole; you choose to give your heart away.”
I’ve said to Him repeatedly, “Make me strong.” And...He sent me another foster child.
It seems that’s the answer for me to become strong. Or am I strong enough now? Perhaps both are true. Time will tell.
Can you imagine tho, the grief triggers that can come from being involved with the foster community—from watching helpless children experience deep grief? All the things I was ever in denial about? Triggered. All the love and loss I had ever experienced? Triggered. All the ambiguous grief I couldn’t face until I was FORCED to cope with it? Present. At the surface here and now.
My answer from God: Deal with it NOW or you CANNOT help these little ones deal with theirs.
The day my soon to be adopted child at the time was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder was truly the day that shattered me. It was the day I had to face being there for someone no matter what, when their battle was the scariest thing I’d ever dreamed of because the prospects for them were so hopeless. For me that day, LOVE meant to stay by their side and stay in the game when I didn’t feel strong enough to face it for one day, let alone a lifetime. Love meant I had to find a way to be strong. My grief in that situation just about tore me ENTIRELY apart.
And now that I’m on the flip side of my shattering, I am accepting a lot of my own life experiences for what they were, what they are, and what they had been. I am accepting myself and what I have been learning. I am accepting my life callings with more courage and strength.
And now I know when I choose to love, I know what I am getting myself into—an equal measure to my heart of joy and pain. I also know that my heart has never been more whole than when it has been broken. I have never been so alive as when I have loved. And my love has never been so magical, healing, or powerful as when my heart has been the most broken. Even the pain of ambiguous grief keeps me aware of my life and ability to love. So if I am feeling pain, I am alive because I love. It increases my capacity to serve. In the full weakness of my love for others I am actually my strongest self.
And if I can love another person on this earth—ANY person (adult or child) in a way that allows me to give them the gift of my love in a way that expects nothing in return, then I have experienced TRUE love, and that understanding in and of itself brings me joy.
if I love
with my whole soul
having no strings attached
then I can truly love
my heart was whole at the time
i chose to give it away.
in beautiful essence
a true gift
shared by my own choice
bringing me pain
but also the satisfaction of joy.
requires no reciprocation
and provides me
love allows me to live
a thousand times over.