Monday, November 30, 2015

Ambiguous Loss: When Grief Threatens A Love Relationship

[Reviewed and updated June 29, 2023]

A reader writes: My fiancée lost her 20 year old daughter 5 months ago from complications following a double lung transplant the year before due to cystic fibrosis. She went off without me after her daughter passed to grieve and deal with family as they have been through all of this for years. It was tough with her being gone for the month or so as I wanted to help comfort her. She said she would need me here at home when she got done to be there for her. Since that time she's had many bad days grieving over her daughter. She spends a lot of time with my 6-year-old son, helping get him to school or you name it. She is with him 24x7 at times and she loves him a lot.

She counts the days of her daughter’s passing and has said that when her son-in-law dies it will be like living her daughter’s death over again and even more so as the last person connected to her daughter would now be gone. (Her daughter was married for less than a year; the son-in-law is not in good health either.)

As of late she is hurting all over with headaches and feeling dizzy at times. She smiles and says she loves me, but she is just having a hard time with missing her daughter. If I make certain meals she gets upset as they where her daughter’s favorite. We bought my son a dog a few weeks ago and she took the dog on as her main mission to train.

These past couple weeks she has been still quiet, but we plan our weekends, play games with my son, dinners, working on the house etc. Wednesday morning she helped me get ready, talked to me about some ideas in the kitchen and such. Wednesday at 11:45 she sent me a text saying I love you sweetie xxooo. She texted she was laying food out for dinner tonight for us. I called her twice after lunch and no answer. I figured she was with the new dog or in the shower.

3:00 rolled around and I got home to see her car was gone, her clothes and some personal items were gone, all pictures of her daughter were gone. She left behind some boxes in the basement—wall items, vases and other stuff she loves and spent a lot of money on. The dog and his bones and one dish were gone.

There was a letter on the island saying I cannot pretend to be happy anymore and I need to heal my broken heart I miss my daughter I’m Sorry.

I found out the next morning that her daughter’s husband had passed that morning, so my fiancée must’ve gotten a call on his condition and was told he was going to pass so she got upset and fled. I have not heard from her and I need to give her space to grieve. She made it clear to me before to allow her space and don't think she is mad at me or that she doesn't love me. We have our whole life together and she needs time to fix her heart. My son’s mother called and said that the day my fiancée left she sat my son down and said she was going away to see her daughter and fix her heart and she was taking his dog and that the dog was still his.

I mailed her a package with some candy she favors when in these moods and some money for gas, food, etc. I also included a letter letting her know that we love her and I am not going anywhere and I am committed to her and I will hold the fort down and take care of my son, keep her side of the bed warm and will not text or call her and that she can when she is ready to come home or talk. So far the package has not come back and I keep waiting every day for it to be returned—insecurity on my side.

My son has been quiet and got upset during his prayers asking if she will come back with his dog. I keep him very busy and when he goes to bed and is asleep I cry myself to sleep. I pace the house when he is outside playing with the other kids. I take him out and he has fun but I have this pain in my gut and all I can do is think of her. Staring at the couch, sleeping on her side of the bed, constantly going through to see what she took and what she left and hoping those were signs she was's horrible. My son goes back to his mom’s on Wednesday and that’s when the house will get quieter.... Maybe the package won’t come back till he is gone so when I lose it and cry he won’t see it. I’m sorry if I seem like a baby or like my feelings even compare to what she is going though. I’m trying to understand from being next to her as she grieved day to day and helping her where I can to being told I love you sweetie and three hours later gone. This grief has been painful for her and this was the other shoe. I’m praying that the package I sent helps and she knows we are here. I jump every time the phone rings, or a text comes in.

This isn't about me and it is about her and her loss, but it has now been a week since she left. Gone for good? I don't know, on a break for a few weeks or months? She loves us and misses us I still don't know. I know her daughter’s bday is coming up and this will be another setback for her. I cannot help and I am struggling. Is this normal or common in grieving? I lost a brother to suicide 14 years ago, but i never lost a child so I have no idea what she is going through. Any advice would be helpful on how to handle or remain calm or should I be worried and that she isn't returning?

My response: My friend, my heart hurts for you as I read your tragic story. I'm so sorry that all this is happening to you and your son. All of it is totally beyond your control, and I can only imagine how devastating this must be for both of you.

As a grief counselor myself, I want to encourage you to seek some sort of professional counseling for yourself and your son as you find your way through this difficult situation. There is so much going on here, the outcome of which is totally uncertain and unpredictable. While others can offer compassion and empathy (such as the wonderful support you would receive from members of our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which contains a forum for Loss of A Love Relationship) I just don't think it is enough. You need and deserve the sort of understanding and support you will find from meeting in person with someone who can help you and your boy sort through all of this.

Losing an adult child  is one of the most life-altering events that can happen to a person ~ and because grief is unique to the individual experiencing it, there is no way to know how your fiancée will continue to deal with this. I can refer you to articles and books that may help you better understand what your lady is going through, but since she is not the person writing to me, I can only guess at what she herself is experiencing.

Your primary focus must be on taking care of you and your son, as that is where your primary responsibility lies. And it seems to me that, in order to deal with your own grief, you deserve some professional support. The loss you and your son are experiencing is also one of the most difficult to endure, because it is an ambiguous one. You don't know if you've really lost this woman or if one day she will come back to you and how you would feel if she does. So you don't know when and if you "should" be mourning the loss of her. This is a form of complicated grief, and the feelings are the same as if your fiance has died, such as sorrow, longing, denial, anger and guilt. But because she hasn't really "died," your grief is complicated by your need to keep hope alive, which constantly interrupts or delays the mourning process and makes it far more difficult to resolve. It's like harboring a wound that cannot heal. As one expert in this field states, "With ambiguous loss, there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity."

The fact that your son is deeply involved in this loss only complicates your situation further. For his sake and your own, I hope you will consider meeting in person with a professional counselor to get some guidance and support. You are worth it, your son is worth it, and you both deserve it. 

Afterword: Thank you and I agree with you totally. It is hard and not knowing if she is gone for good or be back. hurts not knowing and being left in the dark. I appreciate your input and it means the world to me and my son.

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