Ambiguous Loss

Where can I get help?

Willie and Elaine Oliver
Ambiguous Loss

I am a single parent of three children, one of them a young adult who has never left home and has recently been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Although I’ve lived through the challenges most single parents experience, having to care for my mentally ill daughter has been very difficult. I often find myself extremely depressed and don’t know what to do. I hope there’s something you can share to help me cope better than I have been doing for the last several months. 

We’re very sad to hear about your current situation with your daughter. Yet, this is an opportunity to come to grips with the unpredictability of life on this earth. The truth is, the only place of security in this world is found in Jesus. The Bible tells us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).*

Emerging theories of grief, such as ambiguous loss, may help us understand what you’re currently experiencing with your daughter who was recently diagnosed with serious mental illness (SMI). The difference with experiencing the loss of a loved one by death—which in a matter of speaking is final—and the loss of “normal” life by a loved one recently diagnosed with mental illness, is what defines what you’re experiencing as ambiguous loss. 

Ambiguous loss lacks clarity regarding loss. The feelings experienced by a parent when their young adult child is diagnosed with SMI—as in your case—is one of uncertainty that carries confusion, along with high levels of emotional distress, grief, and stigmatization.

What makes SMI so singularly burdensome is that its arrival often takes place during late adolescence and young adulthood, a time when parents have an expectation that their children will develop greater independence and autonomy. So when SMI shows up at this most inopportune time in the parent-child relationship, it is an unusual and very perplexing experience. 

As a parent—like most other parents—you’ve had significant emotional investment in the future well-being of your children. A part of that expectation is that the care you’ve provided will become less and less as your children develop into adults and become independent. There’s also anticipation that your investment in your children’s development will climax in your hopes and dreams for them—including completing their education, getting a job, developing meaningful friendships, as well as finding a spouse with whom to settle down and establish their own families. 

What you’ve described about the way you’ve been feeling is grief. So we encourage you to find a good grief program—preferably one that affirms your faith in God—that will help you to acknowledge your grief and loss, and help you to process your grief in a healthy way. 

 As you deal with your grief, remember that there are many other parents dealing with similar experiences as yours. And more important, remember that you’re not alone. Jesus Himself states in John 14:1: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.” And in John 16:33 He says: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” 

We hope you’ll find the help you need as you follow the counsel we’ve provided. Please also know that you’ll continue to be in our prayers. Remain encouraged and faithful. 

* Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Willie and Elaine Oliver