Suffering with hope

Frozen in Grief – the Pain of Ambiguous Loss

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As we drove away from what felt like the millionth doctor’s appointment for our son, the new prescriptions and prospective treatments felt more like a set up for disappointment than a prospect of future hope. We had lived in this space for twelve years, ever since the realization that our son’s challenges were far beyond just a strong will or a different parenting technique. Little did we know that our sweet and hurting child’s neurological challenges would affect every area of his and our family’s life from that point on. And yet, after more than a decade of doctors, evaluations, treatments, diets, and therapies, somehow it always feels like we’re right back where we started – weary, confused, and grieving the layered losses that have come as a result. 

As many can attest to, the pain of loss sears the deepest places of our hearts. Whether it crashes upon us with one devastating blow or is a gradual fading away of someone or something we hold dear; loss always leaves its painful mark, though its intensity and length will differ for each of us. 

For my husband and I, our losses have come in many shapes and sizes, but the loss that’s been the hardest to grapple with is the one we relive every single day. It’s a kind of loss that Dr. Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss”, which “differs from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be.” In a sense, we feel frozen in our grief, unable to move forward or begin the process of healing because we face our loss in a fresh way every day. 

Dr. Boss explains that there are two kinds of ambiguous loss – the first being physical absence with psychological presence (divorce, adoption, loss of physical contact, etc), and the second being psychological absence with physical presence (dementia, traumatic brain injury, addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory).

While any loss is extremely painful, recognizing the unique aspects of ambiguous loss has given us a helpful framework for understanding why we often feel “frozen in our grief” and has helped us learn how to persevere with the hope of gospel and the strength of Christ in the face of it. As I’ve considered our own losses in light of their ambiguity, I’m learning that it’s a grieving process that often repeats itself on a daily basis. But it’s these three truths that have drawn me closer to the Lord through that process – 

Acknowledge your grief

Those who live with some form of ambiguous loss can often feel guilty for experiencing grief over a loved one who’s still physically present, but psychologically not. We can shame ourselves for growing weary of caring for a loved one who isn’t the same person we once knew, or angry, saddened, and frustrated by the challenges that come with a special needs child. But the reality is, when you’re reminded of your loss on a daily basis, and yet are called to serve and sacrifice for the one who reminds you of what’s been lost, grief will be a frequent visitor. We need to give ourselves grace to acknowledge our grief when it comes. But it’s equally important that we don’t get stuck there. Instead, we need to allow the grief of what’s been lost, or what may never be, to drive us to Christ (through his word and prayer), because he’s the only one who fully knows our pain and can supply the truth, strength, and hope to endure. 

He’s not a God who’s far off, unable to comfort us and provide what we need; he’s the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Not only did Jesus experience pain and loss beyond what we could ever imagine, he did so in order that you and I might know the comfort of his presence, the strength of his power, and the hope of what he’s preparing for us. 

Friend, let your grief drive you to your suffering Savior. As you do, he will equip you to endure, gradually producing glimpses of joy as you come to know his presence in a much deeper way (Romans 5:3-5).

Accept what is

The painful reality of our son’s challenges is heartbreaking, but my pain is further multiplied when I get trapped in the cycle of “if only”. If I continue to live in that state grumbling and discontentment, choosing to fixate on what’s been lost rather than accepting what God has allowed, my peace and joy are the first to go. I know all too well the temptation to distract myself from my reality or to focus on how things used to be (or how I expected them to be). But if we dwell on the life we desire, rather than the life God has chosen for us, then we miss out on seeing and experiencing the life-changing presence, grace, and blessings that he has for us right where we are. 

Christian, God has called each of us to walk the road he has marked out for us for his good purposes, whether it be caring for your spouse whose mind is fading away, serving a friend who physically can’t care for herself or give anything in return, or sacrificing everyday for a child who requires all of your energy, focus, and time. As hard as these callings are, the writer of Hebrews spurs us on to “be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (13:5) We’re not only to be content in our possessions, we’re to be content in all circumstances – even circumstances that may never change this side of heaven. 

However, I’ll be the first to admit that this is incredibly hard when every ounce of your patience and energy are tested and you experience a fresh sense of loss everytime the sun rises. But that is precisely why the promise of God’s presence is so precious. He assures us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Every morning that you awake to the painful reality of what lies in front of you, remember that his grace, comfort, and strength meet you as well. 

The power to be content and at peace in ambiguous loss lies in the strength and comfort of his presence, not in the hope of better days. And by God’s grace, the more we experience his presence, the more we will grow in contentment – not because our pain is gone, but because we have the peace of Christ within it. 

Assure yourself of your future hope  

Friend, as we learn to trust the Lord with the life he’s given us, there are countless unexpected blessings to be found – both now and for eternity. As painful as it is to be reminded of loss on a daily basis, it can also serve as a continual reminder to fix our hope on Christ and the eternal home he is preparing us for. It may be hard to see beyond today, but we don’t lose heart because Jesus is coming again, “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:2-3).

Our losses, disappointments, and grief will not have the final word. My precious son (who God has miraculously given a heart of faith) will one day be free from all that torments his mind and body and will experience the joy of being made whole. One day, for all who trust in Christ, genetic disorders, special needs, traumatic brain injuries, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, and every other pain and loss from living in this broken world will be restored in the presence of God’s glory (Revelation 21:4). 

Today, if you are facing a fresh sense of grief over someone you love, let the tears come, pour out your heart before the Lord, and ask for a renewed sense of his comfort, presence, and strength. Then remind yourself that God has chosen this hard road with the specific people and circumstances in your life for his good and sovereign purposes. If he’s called you to carry the cross of an ambiguous loss, you’ve been given the privilege of walking in the footsteps of Christ and displaying the gospel by laying down your life for another – even when they have nothing to give in return. Press on in the truth that God promises he will never leave you nor forsake you, and he will give you the grace for whatever lies ahead.

As you look to Christ, let your grief increase your longing for something more, your longing increase your hope for what’s to come, and your hope to enable you to live today in light of that reality.  

In His Strength,

Sarah Walton

You can now order Jeff and Sarah Walton’s book, Together Through the Storms – Biblical Encouragements for Your Marriage When Life Hurts here or on Amazon. To hear more of their story, you can watch the book trailer here-

To read more on the hope we have in suffering, check out “Hope When It Hurts – 30 Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering” authored by Sarah Walton and Kristen Wetherell here or here.

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7 thoughts on “Frozen in Grief – the Pain of Ambiguous Loss”

  1. Thank you so much. I take care of my son 24/7. No family helps me, and my husband left. House to foreclosure, etc., etc. It’s very hard to find a ministry like yours. We are called to suffer for Christ’s sake. It seems that few are willing. I have to keep the eternal perspective. Thank you for your encouragement and honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Keli, I’m so incredibly sorry. What a heavy load you are carrying. It is sad that so many avoid the suffering of others, rather than seeing it as a privilege to walk alongside each other. Praying for your endurance and to feel the Lord’s nearness even when others walk away.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. God bless you Keli for not walking away from your son! I pray that you have a support system even if it is something as simple as a friend that you can vent to when life is too hard to handle on your own. My husband was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and we live far from either of our families so I looked to friends on Facebook to give me daily words of encouragement that along with my daily talks with God kept me going in my darkest moments.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for your writing. So much of what you write is useful and encouraging in so many ways. Especially with how you’ve explained ambiguous loss and grief.

    This sentence really struck a chord with me:

    If he’s called you to carry the cross of an ambiguous loss, you’ve been given the privilege of walking in the footsteps of Christ and displaying the gospel by laying down your life for another –

    How humbling to think of suffering as walking in the footsteps of Christ! It’s so easy to get wrapped up in a self pity party for one, instead of looking upwards to Christ.

    I recently listened to a podcast of Brene Brown with Dr. Bruce D Perry about trauma and the brain. He spoke of big T trauma….something that hits you all at once, like the death of a child, and small t trauma, which he described as continuous, repeated events of distress. He said that both affect our brains in the same way, causing even physical changes in the brain.

    In my life, understanding trauma, and now ambiguous loss, helps me to understand why I struggle with depression. In my life, both my husband and son deal with unrelenting headaches (and I mean 24/7), with no diagnosis or effective treatment, and both suffer losses in being unable to work, or drive, or be in crowds for social reasons due to sensory impairments to light and sound that makes the pain worse. My hubby was also diagnosed with a pituitary tumour causing acromegaly which required surgery to remove the tumour, and while fixing that problem, resulted in more head pain. Add in family conflict with estrangement from my hubby’s father, and myself being unable to work as an RN because of the stress nursing comes with, it’s no wonder I’ve struggled with depression for the last 4 years.

    Understanding trauma and ambiguous loss has helped me make sense of a nonsensical life. It doesn’t make it easy in any way as you well know, and I’m often driven to despair and being overwhelmed at times with pain and grief and frustration as to why this is part of God’s plans. But reading your blogs, you sharing your thoughts and real life struggles helps me to look upwards to Christ instead of inwards.

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight. God is using you to encourage and strengthen so many people. He’s given you the gift of writing, and the strength to be vulnerable so we may learn from you. Thank you for listening to God’s calling for you in this way. May God bless you in your ministry!

    (I really need to get your books) 😏

    (and I think I’ve commented before, but felt compelled to again)

    Liked by 1 person

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