A Powerful DIY Ritual to Help Heal Ambiguous Grief

A Powerful DIY Ritual to Help Heal Ambiguous Grief

Getty/Zbynek Pospisil

For those of us grieving changed relationships with living loved ones, a faux funeral may be the key to healing. Explore what ambiguous grief is and how this ritual can help.

As humans, we are united by the experience of grief: something we will all know when a loved one dies. While this grief—the type that marks an irreversible end—is an expected and inevitable occurrence, it is likely not the only form of grief we will experience during our lifetimes.

What Is Ambiguous Grief?

We experience something called ambiguous grief when a loved one is alive, but there’s been a change or a break in the relationship: a divorce from a spouse, a parent’s degenerative brain disease, a child’s descent into addiction, the estrangement of a dear friend, or the absence of an incarcerated partner. How do we grieve when someone we love is living but lost to us? How do we find peace with a loss that cannot be marked by a headstone?

As an extension of Dr. Pauline Boss’s theory of ambiguous loss, I sought to answer these questions and understand what makes grief different when it’s not the loss but the grieving process itself that is ambiguous. What I found is that, in the absence of traditional societal norms, those of us suffering such losses often isolate and grieve alone.

This was my experience when I discovered that my beloved marriage of nearly 20 years wasn’t what I believed it to be. Shocked and shattered, I filed for divorce and sank into a deep depression. Except for one trusted friend and my therapist, I told no one. Three months passed before I notified friends and family. Of course, had a physical death occurred, I would have immediately alerted my loved ones and started preparing for the funeral.

When I finally began to share, word spread, and I received an influx of communication.

Expressions of sorrow and support arrived in the form of phone calls, text messages, emails, and greeting cards. Some friends came to stay with me, and others sent self-care packages accompanied by beautifully written sentiments. While grateful for such support, I still felt as alone as I had during the previous three months when no one knew.

This feeling of painful disconnection extended for nearly a year when I was journaling and made a remarkable discovery: The response to my loss felt disproportionate to its importance. What my marriage had meant to me wasn’t expressed when I alerted my loved ones or in any of the conversations I’d had since. I felt invalidated in my grief and in the seemingly insurmountable pain of my loss.

How Loved Ones Respond to Ambiguous Grief

From the start, my support system had focused on me; people were careful not to reference my marriage and tip-toed around speaking certain names. On the rare occasions someone “slipped,” a profuse apology followed. These weren’t acts of malicious avoidance—my friends and family didn’t know what to say any more than I did. And, by delaying news of what had happened, I also inadvertently signaled that I didn’t want to talk about it. But that wasn’t true.

There was so much to say, but except for my therapist, few people knew how I was feeling. I didn’t even speak to her about the profound love and pride I had for my marriage or the happiness I’d enjoyed in my relationship for two decades.

Though my relationship had died and I was experiencing overwhelming grief, I had not memorialized the partnership that had been the most beloved of my life. Identifying this inspired me to take action and ultimately led me to hold a ceremony that would.

How to Conduct a Faux-neral

Whether ambiguous grief is onset by the loss of a loved one to addiction, cognitive decline, estrangement, mental illness, a diagnosis, divorce, or something else, embracing the rituals of a traditional funeral ceremony and honoring your loss with a “faux-neral” may be helpful for you, too.

1. Select a location, date, and time. It doesn’t have to cost anything—I held mine on the banks of a serene pond at a local park.

2. Invite those who understand the depth of your loss and how the relationship change has impacted you. (Mine included only two dear friends.)

3. Curate the ceremony with meaningful music. Share photographs, tell a favorite story, and invite guests to offer their fondest memories of your relationship.

4. Write and deliver a formal eulogy or simply read from a bullet-pointed notecard. If this feels too overwhelming, simply light a candle and offer a prayer of gratitude (or ask a guest to do so).

5. Receive your guests. Just as you would upon the conclusion of your loved one’s funeral, accept their sympathies and thank each person for attending. For me, thanking my two guests and receiving their heartfelt condolences soothed my soul in a way nothing else had.

That’s because ceremonies serve as an expression of the love we have for the relationship being grieved, and it helps to honor our loss by providing an opportunity for our grief to be witnessed.

On this, grief advocate and author Marisa Renee Lee agrees, saying, “We can’t heal from that which is not acknowledged. While it is most important for us to acknowledge our grief ourselves, feeling seen by others validates our pain and helps us move toward acceptance and healing.”

In addition to the importance of witnesses, incorporating rituals (lighting of candles, recitation of prayers, and singing of songs) helps to crystallize this milestone and supports a sustained experience of acceptance. In this way, a faux-neral acts as a conduit for ambiguous grievers, moving us out of our silent suffering and offering an opportunity to finally feel validated in our love and our loss.

Explore these seven meditation techniques to help with grief.

A Powerful DIY Ritual to Heal Ambiguous Grief

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