Holiday Grief with Living Losses

We are entering the week of Christmas! Can you believe it?! Typically at this time in the season, I've already engaged in a few holiday festivities with dear friends and am gearing up for the family gatherings in the week to come; thinking about the "schedule" and looking forward to all the tasty food, playing silly annual holiday games, and building everlasting memories!

Unfortunately, 2020 has interfered with how we expect to spend/celebrate the holidays in ways, I'm sure, we didn't think possible. This has created a universal experience that is new for many; the idea of grieving not being able to celebrate the holidays we typically do/would like to and having to make, what feels like, extreme adjustments due to a global pandemic.

This experience falls under the concept of living loss or ambiguous loss.

This dog's response mirrors the typical feelings when talking about or experiencing ambiguous/living losses. When we hear the term we can think "Huh? What is that?" or if we've heard of it we may not know exactly what it is. When we're experiencing it, we may be cocking our head (like the sweet pup to the left) and wondering "Is this even grief?" or "This is so dumb/silly to be sad about!" Have you had these thoughts with the sudden changes 2020 has brought upon us? Have you had these thoughts around other components (such as loss of financial support or change in daily routine) paired with the loss of a loved one? You're not alone!

So what is ambiguous loss?

This refers to a loss that is vague or unclear. It triggers the same emotions we experience when grieving a common loss (the loss of a loved one), leaving us feeling frustrated due to not knowing how to name what we're experiencing. Ambiguous loss can also carry the following characteristics:

  • Subjectiveness; making it hard to measure and this can bring our loss into question. We may find ourself comparing our grief to others' with thoughts such as "This is so silly to grieve" or "My loss isn't as bad as his/hers".

  • Lacks societal validation; ambiguous/living losses don't get the same societal recognition that common losses do, resulting in us not talking about our grief attached to these losses.

Because of these characteristics, ambiguous/living losses (or hidden losses as I like to call them) are said to be one of the most dangerous losses. There are also said to be "the most devastating because it remains unclear, and indeterminate." (Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief.). Without recognition or validation, we attempt to move about as nothing is wrong and not realizing we have a grief journey to honor just like those who are grieving a common loss.

Types of Ambiguous Loss

Before jumping into how we address and cope with ambiguous/living loss, I want to talk about the two types of ambiguous loss. (Note: this information is adapted from Pauline Boss's book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief.)

  1. Type I: Physically absent, psychologically present; leaving without saying goodbye. Absence and individuals being seen as missing characterize this type of loss. For example, families suffering from uncertainty around a missing solider experience this type of loss. In less extreme cases, divorce and adoptive families also fit this category of ambiguous loss; experiencing an absence of a family member/parent.

  2. Type II: Psychologically absent, physically present; saying goodbye without leaving. This is seen most commonly in families who are caregiving for a loved one who is battling Alzheimer's. In everyday life, this can manifest through an individaul over working or being consumed by other interests outside the family.

In thinking about these two types of ambiguous/living losses, which type do you think we're experiencing with not being able to celebrate the holidays how we expected to due to COVID-19?

**Cue jeopardy music**

Did you guess type II?

We are still physically navigating this world, just in a different fashion. What we used to call "normal" is still sticking with us psychologically as we wish we could go back to the ways of any year prior to 2020. We are experiencing loss around "normal" social interaction, "normal" work life, and "normal" holiday celebrations. However, most of us don't classify what we're experiencing as grief. This is a form of grief! It is just as valid as any other form of grief and deserves to be addressed just like any other form of grief (stay tuned for a future blog article discussing the different forms of grief experienced)!

Now that we have an idea of what ambiguous loss is, let's talk about how we begin to address it. First and foremost, we want to identify the particular loss. So...let's do another exercise! To really know and understand what it is you're grieving, I want to encourage you to answer the following questions (I will too!):

  1. What have I lost?

  2. What am I currently loosing?

  3. What do I fear loosing?

What did you come up with? Not entirely sure how to answer? Let me walk you through my answers to these questions in relation to COVID-19:

  1. I'm an extrovert! I love to be busy with social plans so when COVID-19 hit, I lost the ability to fill my schedule with social gatherings, see my loved ones, and meet new people.

  2. Currently, I'm loosing the best way I know how to connect with my social circle and how to make my loved ones feel recognized and important. While virtual hangouts are a great alternative, I struggle with it feeling impersonal.

  3. I fear loosing the strength of my social circle and support system. I fear loosing the organic in person communication/engagement and resorting to virtual communication because it's seen as easier and more comfortable.

As you answer these questions, be specific about your answers! Try and stay away from just saying "I lost my job". While yes that's true, what else comes with loosing your job? Loss of identify? Loss of purpose? Loss of structure? (These could also answer what you're currently loosing.) I'd also encourage you to explore how this loss interferes with other areas or relationships in your life. This exercise will not only help you identify what you've lost and how to direct your grief work, it will also allow you to become more mindful of when it's present. It's hard to work on something when we don't know what it is or when it's around!

Once you've identified the loss(es) you're grieving, validate, validate, VALIDATE! If you take nothing away from this blog article, take away the importance of validating your loss and grief experience. Although grieving the loss of a loved one looks very different then grieving the loss of what we expected our holidays would look like prior to COVID-19, both losses are valid!

How can you create space for and validate the losses (whether common or ambiguous/living) you're greiving this holiday season?

Here's to living a better life as your best self!

Brittany Squillace, MA, LAMFT


Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief. Harvard University Press.

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