If you have ever dealt with the unexpected loss of a loved one, you know (or can imagine) the pain and sadness it causes. But loss does not necessarily always refer to the death of someone you hold dear. Sometimes loss comes in the form of the unexpected removal of a close person in your life. Their unexpected disappearance leaves a hole in your heart and a barrage of unanswered questions. Those left behind may never fully get the closure they deserve.
What Is Ambiguous Loss?
An ambiguous loss refers to the loss of someone in your life that comes with unanswered questions or lack of knowledge as to what became of them. An ambiguous loss is frustrating for those who are left behind to pick up the pieces. The unexplained loss of a loved one disallows a sense of closure or resolution for their friends and family. In many ways, an ambiguous loss can be harder to deal with than a finite loss or death.
Ambiguous loss comes in the form of different circumstances and is separated into two categories, type one, and type two:
Type one ambiguous loss describes a physical loss, meaning the person has been removed from your life but you are unaware of their whereabouts or if they are even alive. An example would include the disappearance of someone, a kidnapping, or a family member who has gone missing while on military deployment.
This kind of ambiguous loss leaves the remaining friends or family members with a sense of confusion, frustration, and uncertainty. Some other examples of type one ambiguous loss include:
- War and acts of terrorism
- Natural disasters
- Deportation or genocide
Other types of type one ambiguous loss can come from a loss of contact such as through a falling out or breakup. You may know where the person is but have no contact or communication with them any longer. Such examples include:
- Divorce or breakup
- Separation due to immigration
- Ghosting, or when a person you’ve been dating suddenly stops communicating with you without giving a reason
Type two ambiguous loss refers to a psychological loss. Or when someone is no longer available mentally or emotionally.
They may be physically present, but their personality has changed so drastically that they no longer behave like the person they once were.
This kind of ambiguous loss can be caused by:
- Cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
- Drug or alcohol addiction
- Traumatic injury to the brain
- Depression or other chronic mental health illness
In this type of loss, you may mourn the person that your loved one once was. It’s incredibly frustrating for friends and family who can connect physically with their loved one but not emotionally or mentally.
How Is This Type Of Loss Unique?
Closure is an important part of the grieving process. Although the death of a loved one may sometimes be hard to accept, death is concrete. Whether they died after a long-drawn-out illness or passed suddenly, we at least know what happened to them. It may take us time to accept their passing, but we know the clear stages of our grief. For those who are experiencing an ambiguous loss, the grief process is frozen. They find it difficult to move on and instead stay frozen in place.
With an ambiguous loss, there is no concrete closure. We are left at a crossroads between giving up hope for their physical or mental return or continuing to hold out for their return. With an ambiguous loss, we’re not sure whether to grieve or continue searching for our loved ones.
Because we don’t know the circumstances of their disappearance, our imagination is left to fill in the blanks. Letting your imagination take over is mentally exhausting and can affect your overall well-being.
10 Tips On How To Cope When A Loved One Goes Missing
1. LEAN ON YOUR FRIENDS & FAMILY FOR SUPPORT
Your friends and family love you and will want to be there for you to support you during this difficult time. Coping with a missing loved one may be easier when you have a support group.
Your support group can be there for you when you need to talk, help you cope with your daily tasks (such as cooking, laundry, or childcare), or help you in your search for your missing loved one.
Keep your friends and loved ones close to you during this time. Make an effort to see and speak with them on a regular basis. You shouldn’t be alone during your time of loss. Let those around you provide the comfort you need for coping with a missing loved one.
2. TAKE ACTION
Recruit your friends or family members to be part of your search party. Sitting idly by waiting for news of your missing person is agonizing. Although police and investigators may be doing a great job in their search for your missing loved one, every little bit helps. It will also be helpful for your mental health to stay busy doing something proactive.
Schedule A Search Party: Organize a search party to look for your missing person. Start a Facebook group to recruit volunteers from your community to band together and look for evidence of your missing loved one. The more people you have looking for a missing person the more likely they are to be found.
Distribute Flyers: Get a group together and distribute missing person flyers for your loved one. Spread them far and wide across your community. The more eyes and awareness you can draw to your cause, the better chance you have at turning up clues.
Post On Social Media: Social media can be a powerful tool for spreading awareness and getting more people involved. Start a social media account dedicated to finding your missing loved one. You may uncover tips or evidence on what happened to your missing loved one.
3. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
During hard and stressful times, it’s easy to put your needs on the backburner. You may be diverting all your energy into looking for your loved one. Which means you may be forgetting to eat or missing sleep due to stress or anxiety.
Self-care shouldn’t be skipped, especially during such a stressful time. Tips for self-care could include:
Exercise. Regular exercise helps to relieve anxiety, boost your mood, and strengthen your immune system. A brisk walk or jog can help take your mind off your devastating circumstances and allow you a short release. You will also be improving your health and strength, which will help you in your search for your loved one.
Massage. A massage or spa day can help to relieve tension in your muscles that will likely be tight due to stress. Massage therapy allows you to relax your body and mind in a comfortable, safe setting. The stress and anxiety of searching for a missing loved one can take a toll on your physical well-being as well as your mental well-being.
Do Something Fun. It may sound absurd to think about going out for a good time when your loved one is missing. But everybody deserves a break, even family members of missing persons. Everyone understands that you are breaking your back day and night looking for your loved one. One night off to yourself is well deserved and will save your mental sanity.
Doing something nice for yourself like exercising, getting a massage, or having a fun night out may make you feel guilty. But taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing is as important for yourself as it is your missing loved one.
Not taking care of yourself will eventually lead to poor health. If you are in poor health, it will make it more difficult for you to continue your search. Additionally, other aspects of your life may suffer as well such as your job and relationships with friends and family. And if you are the caretaker of a child or multiple children, your caretaking duties may also suffer. Your missing loved one will never be forgotten, but your life and the lives of your loved ones still with you are just as important.
4. SPEAK TO A THERAPIST
Your emotional well-being is important. It could be very helpful for you to talk to a professional about the trauma you are going through. Internalizing your pain can lead to depression, anxiety, or even self-destructive coping mechanisms (like alcohol or drug abuse). Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone for help.
Therapists, grief counselors, or even your family priest may be able to help you talk through your emotions. Professionals are trained to help people going through situations like yours. They may be able to offer insight or other forms of help that could be beneficial.
5. GO OFFLINE
The constant barrage of notifications, updates, or messages about your loved one’s disappearance may become too much to handle. Every news report, social media comment, or well-meaning message is just another reminder of the ordeal you’re going through. It may be beneficial for you to take a step back from the media and go offline.
Give yourself space to clear your mind and focus on your own wellbeing. During your time offline, make a point to take care of your mental health. Go for long walks in nature, spend time meditating, or simply enjoy time with your pets, friends, and family. You deserve a break from your continuing pain.
6. DON'T GIVE UP
No matter how long it’s been since you last saw your loved one, there is still a chance that they could be found. People go missing every year but fortunately, many of them are found. Don’t give up hope that your missing person will return to you safe and sound. Keep your loved one in your heart and pray for their return. A few things you can do to keep your hope alive are:
Take time out of your day to meditate on your loved one’s reappearance. Find a quiet space where you can relax for at least 10 minutes daily. Quiet your mind and focus your attention on a guided meditation to bring your loved one back.
You may repeat a positive mantra such as, “my loved one is safe and well and on their way home to me”. Or you may use guided imagery such as, envisioning your loved one being back in your arms. Meditation can help to focus your thoughts on the positive outcome rather than the negative.
Have a special photo engraved pendant made with your loved one’s image. Remembrance jewelry can help you cope with your ambiguous loss by giving you something of your loved one to always keep with you.
It may also be helpful to keep their photo around your neck to show other people who you are searching for.
Join A Prayer Group
There is power in numbers, even in prayer. Whether you are religious or not, prayer can be a powerful tool. Prayer invokes positive thinking and can be a comfort to those who are grieving.
A prayer group brings other well-meaning people together who will pray with you on your loved one’s safe return. Praying with others who are rooting for you can help to lift your spirits and keep your faith alive.
7. DON'T PLACE BLAME
Whether or not you or someone else had something to do with your loved one’s disappearance, placing blame doesn’t help get them back. We all make mistakes. Certainly no one would ever intentionally mean for someone to disappear.
Placing blame on yourself will only drive you deeper into your mental health struggles. Yes, we all wish we could go back in time and do things differently. But we can’t.
You can’t change the past, so you must focus on the future. Focus on what you can do now to help get your loved one back to you. Apply the same logic to someone else should they have had something to do with your loved one’s disappearance. Continuing to punish them with blame will only serve to hurt you more.
Anger and blame will drain you of energy, energy that could be better spent looking for your missing person. As hard as it may be, you must learn to forgive to move on.
8. FIND NEW MEANING IN YOUR LIFE
Your loved one may be missing but that doesn’t mean your life should stall completely. It may be difficult for you to imagine a life without them, but you still have life yet to live. Find new meaning in your life to encourage you to go on living. You still have love, talent, and energy to give to this world, your time is not up yet.
Consider volunteering for an organization that helps find missing people. Or offer your services to a volunteer group that your missing loved one is passionate about.
You will find new meaning in your life and help others at the same time. Helping others helps you heal and gives you purpose and something to look forward to each day.
9. JOIN A SUPPORT GROUP
Dealing with an ambiguous loss may feel lonely at times but know that you are not alone. There are many other people in this world who are going through what you are going through right now. These people know exactly how you feel and have a lot of insight into your situation.
Join a support group for those who have suffered ambiguous loss. It will feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders being able to vent to others who know your situation.
Talking with your support group can help you through your grief and may be able to offer your guidance in how to deal with your situation. Check online for ambiguous loss resources or check your local library or church for support groups that focus on ambiguous loss.
10. BE PREPARED FOR WHATEVER OUTCOME
Although you should always remain positive, at some point you need to be ready to accept an undesirable outcome. If your loved one has been missing for over a certain amount of time, you may need to accept that they are not coming back. Not knowing what has happened to your loved one is one of the most difficult struggles to cope with when experiencing an ambiguous loss. Accepting that they will never return to you is the only form of closure you may ever receive.
You must be willing to accept that you may never know what befell your loved one. Terrible events happen to us sometimes that we have no control over. It isn’t yours or anybody else’s fault.
Although miracles do happen, you must be realistic with your situation and be ready to accept the worst case scenario.
How Can You Help Someone Else Cope With A Missing Family Member Or Friend?
OFFER YOUR SUPPORT
If someone you know is dealing with an ambiguous loss, the best thing you can do for them is offer your support. Your friend needs a support group of good people around them to help them through this tough time.
Lend a helping hand by being there for them when they need a shoulder to cry on or someone to talk to. Help them with their day-to-day tasks such as cooking, cleaning, or offering to babysit. Anything you can do to help your friend during this tough time will be much appreciated.
Your friend needs a supporter to help them keep their hope alive. When a person is first reported missing, it’s imperative that your friend stay positive while figuring out what’s happened. Keep their spirits up by providing words of encouragement and love.
Let them know that you’ve got their back no matter what. But do be mindful of your words as they can have a lasting impact. If you’re not sure what to say, simply let them know you’re sorry this has happened and that you will do anything you can to help them find their missing loved one.
HELP WITH THE SEARCH
The search process for a missing person is long and exhaustive. There are many different aspects to running a search party that your friend may need help with.
Offer to take over some of the responsibilities of the search to give your friend a break. They will appreciate having someone to take some of the work off their shoulders.
Coordinate search parties: Start a Facebook group and put the word out to your community about joining a search party for your friend’s missing loved one. Make sure you make the event public and ask your friends and acquaintances to help spread the word far and wide. Decide on a time and place for everyone to meet up. You may also want to consider asking volunteers to bring certain provisions (like water bottles, extra jackets, or snacks) or bring them yourself to ensure everyone is safe and comfortable during the search.
Update social media accounts: Social media can be a very important tool for spreading awareness about your missing person’s case. Frequent updates and interaction with your followers will make your case more visible and keep your followers more interested. Offer to take over the social media accounts for your friend so that they can focus on other aspects of the search.
Start a flyer campaign: Flyers that feature the missing persons picture, name, age, and location last seen can be helpful for the public in identifying them. Make enough fliers to post all over town and volunteer with a few other friends to distribute them.
OFFER TO STAY BY THE PHONE
Offer to be the spokesperson for your friend and their family to field any media calls. You can act as the buffer between your friend and the public until your friend is mentally strong enough to answer questions.
You can also volunteer to stay by the phone for any updates while your friend and their family is out searching for their missing loved ones. Knowing that someone is at home taking care of things will be a huge relief for your friend.
More Resources & Tips For Those Coping With A Missing Loved One
A missing person in the family can cause financial strain. You may have to take time off work or put some of your funds into searching for them. Notify your employer of what is happening, you may need to go on leave. Find out if your workplace offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that may assist with support.
You could also reach out to pro bono organizations that specialize in assisting families of missing persons. They may provide legal help or other help, free of charge. And don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family for help. You could start a crowdsourced fundraiser to support your cause. Your friends, family, and general public can donate to your cause and help with your financial support.
NATIONAL MISSING AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON SYSTEM (NamUS)
One of the first steps to take when you find out a loved one is missing is to register them with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS). The NamUS is a nationwide database of missing persons that is provided to law enforcement, coroners, medical examiners, forensic professionals, and family members of missing persons. The database makes it easier and quicker for law enforcement (etc.) to identify a missing person.
MISSING PERSONS SUPPORT CENTER
The missing persons support center is a non-profit organization that aims to help law enforcement and families of missing persons. They provide resources for families of missing persons as well as bring awareness to missing persons cases.
Tips For Grieving A Missing Person If They Have Been Found Deceased
It’s difficult to say whether discovering your loved one deceased is harder than never finding them at all. Though your worst fear may be learning of your loved one’s death, death can at least provide some closure to your harrowing ordeal. Grieving the loss of a loved one who was missing is as difficult as grieving the loss of any loved one. Below are a few tips for how to grieve after a missing loved one has been found deceased.
DON'T BLAME YOURSELF
Nobody wants to accept the death of a loved one. You may have held on to every last shred of hope you could muster, only to have your hopes shattered in an instant. It can be easy to think of what you did wrong or could have done better.
You should have looked harder, you should have reported them missing sooner, you shouldn’t have let them out of your sight in the first place…the blame goes on and on.
Ultimately, you are not responsible for your loved one’s disappearance or death. Life is full of unexpected happenings. There are things we can’t control, no matter how much we wish we could. Terrible events happen to good people. You are not to blame for the terrible misfortune that has befallen your loved one.
FIND TIME ALONE TO GRIEVE & HEAL
There may be a lot of media coverage surrounding the disappearance and death of your loved one. The constant attention on you and your family may make it difficult to get a moment alone. You may not know how to react with thousands of eyes on you all the time. Grieving in front of a massive audience would be hard for anybody, you are no exception.
Find time to grieve and heal alone away from the public eye. Go offline, stay close to home, or get out of town to avoid the watchful eyes of others. Give yourself time and space to heal on your own or with your family. Don’t let others input or unwanted opinions interfere with your grieving process.
FIND A SUPPORT GROUP
Find a support group that caters to people in situations like yours. There may be support groups specifically centered around people who have suffered ambiguous loss or death of a missing person. Talking with other people who understand what you are going through can be a comfort in such a hard period of your life. The support of others can help you heal faster than if you grieved alone.
REACH OUT TO FRIENDS FOR SUPPORT
Your friends and family will understand what a difficult time you are going through. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them for support. Having your loved ones around you will help you feel less alone in your grief.
They can be by your side every step of the way and help you with whatever it is you need. You shouldn’t have to suffer alone, those who know and love you will be more than willing to lend a helping hand.
HAVE KEEPSAKE JEWELRY MADE
Keepsake jewelry is a beautiful way to keep the memory of your deceased loved one alive. There are many ways you can incorporate your deceased loved one’s spirit and likeness into keepsake jewelry. Remembrance keepsake jewelry allows you to keep a part of your loved one with you, even if they are no longer present in your life.
Thumbprint Jewelry & Keepsakes
Thumbprint jewelry and keepsakes incorporate your deceased loved one’s thumbprint into their design. You can keep the most unique part of them with you wherever you go.
A thumbprint ring, thumbprint necklace, or thumbprint memorial coin are beautiful ways to honor a deceased missing person for years to come.
Should you choose to have your deceased loved one cremated, cremation jewelry can use a small portion of their ashes in their jewelry design. Many styles of cremation necklaces, bracelets, or rings offer small compartments that allow you to fill with your loved one’s ashes. In doing so, you can carry a small part of your loved one with you wherever you go.
Jewelry Made From Ashes
Jewelry made from ashes is uniquely designed jewelry pieces that use your loved one’s ashes in the design and material. Your loved one’s ashes are mixed in with the metal as the jewelry pieces are made. Jewelry made from ashes can be found in necklace pendants and rings.
PRACTICE GRIEF & LOSS ACTIVITIES
Grief and loss activities are any activities that help you work through your grief daily.
Read books. Reading is an activity that boosts your creativity and helps you escape from your present reality. When you are lost in a book, you are transported to another place and time. If you like to read, keep a few books handy next time you feel encompassed by your grief. You may also find reading books specifically on grief and how to cope with losing a loved one. These books may offer you more insight on the best way to cope with your feelings.
Complete grief worksheets. Grief worksheets combine different tasks, activities, and exercises designed to help you heal. You’ll learn about the different stages of grief and what to expect at each stage of the grieving process. They will help you to better understand the emotions you’re going through as well as what’s normal and what isn’t. Grief worksheets can be found online through various grief support networks or from your grief counselor.
Practice rituals. Continuing to practice rituals that you used to do with your deceased loved one can help you feel connected to them. Such rituals could be saying good morning or good night to them every day, writing them a letter, or doing things you’d normally do with them while keeping them in your thoughts. You may even choose to talk aloud to them as if they were right beside you. These rituals can help you feel close to your loved one, even when they are no longer with you.
Missing Persons Frequently Asked Questions
How do you stay calm when someone is missing?
There is no easy way to handle the news that one of your loved one’s is missing. Your thoughts may race to the worst-case scenarios and cause you a tremendous amount of stress. But staying calm is imperative for getting your loved one home as quickly as possible.
Force yourself to focus on the important tasks at hand. Understand that you must be calm to contact the authorities and give them every detail you know. You need to be calm to be at your best mental capacity and help the authorities bring your loved one back sooner.
What do you say to someone who has a family member missing?
Choose your words carefully when speaking with someone who has a family member missing. Your words could easily be misconstrued or taken out of context and upset them. If you’re unsure of what to say, simply state that you are there to help in any way you can. You want to remain positive and keep their spirits up, yet you don’t want to instill false hope. Let them know you are there to help them do whatever it takes to find their loved one.
What do you do when someone you love goes missing?
When someone you love goes missing, the first step is to contact the police and let them know the situation. Tell them every detail you can about when and where you last saw your loved one, what they were wearing, who they were with, and whether you think they may be in trouble.
Then start your own search by recruiting friends and family members to help you. Start by going to the last place you saw your loved one, then move on to places they normally frequent. Next alert the media and provide them with photographs of your loved one so you have more visibility for your search. The more awareness you can draw to your missing person’s case the easier it will be for them to be found.
Should I grieve for someone who is missing even though they may return?
An ambiguous loss refers to the loss of a person who has gone missing and their whereabouts and mortality status are unknown. Grieving for an ambiguous loss is very similar to the grieving process of mourning someone who is confirmed deceased. With an ambiguous loss, there is no definite closure.
Some people may choose to hold on to every shred of hope that their loved one is alive. Others may prefer to grieve for them as if they were gone for good, if only to help them heal their sadness. How you decide to grieve for your ambiguous loss is dependent on what your emotional state is and how long your loved one has been missing.
How do you overcome ambiguous loss?
Ambiguous loss is difficult to overcome but the healing process starts by recognizing what you are going through. Understand that you may never have answers to what happened to your loved one and accept it. Find a therapist or a support group where you can voice your feelings, worries, fears, and concerns. It’s important that you can express your emotions to avoid internalizing your pain.
You must also accept that you will never see your loved one again and find a way to be okay with that. Do this by celebrating what you have left of them. They may no longer be here in person but the memories you built or children you had together are still with you. You can always carry a part of them inside your heart, wherever you go. Ambiguous loss is difficult but there is always hope for a better future.
Letting Go When You've Lost A Loved One
An ambiguous loss leaves you with the forever unanswered question: Do you keep holding out hope for your loved one’s return or let them go? No one knows better than you what is best for you and your happiness.
Just remember that while your loved one may no longer be in your life, you still have a life to live. You must continue living, even if they are not with you now.
July 17, 2022 by Jeri K. Augustus