I receive a text message from my aunty with a calendar invitation for Thursday evening at 6pm, the event titled ‘The Broken Heart Consultation’. I understand this emergency meeting has been called to help make sense of what happened to her son, my cousin, last week. My cousin was broken up with via video call, exactly four days before he was due to meet his girlfriend of eleven years in Greece where she had been working. For two years, my cousin and his now-ex had been planning a fresh start abroad, which he will now embark on alone. When I heard the news, I could not unmind the image of my poor cousin suspended 35,000 feet above sea level, heartbroken, and processing this loss alone.
I accept my aunty’s invite and arrive at 6pm sharp. We perch in front of the fire and for several hours discuss the breakup in depth, as humans do when breakups happen to those we care about. We talk as if this very normative and conventional experience is an entirely new phenomenon.
The phrase ‘we need to talk’ in the context of an intimate relationship might be one of the most dreaded, anxiety-provoking lines around. Though, this term is being articulated often, right now in fact, in more languages than you could probably name. Some people are brave and look you in the eye as they say it. Others are deliberate in choosing to utter it in a public location to ‘save face’. Others again, opt to inform significant others by way of a text or social media message. Irrespective of how it is delivered, often this phrase invariably leads to heartbreak.
Ambiguous loss and grief refer to losses in which someone is unlikely to attain emotional closure
One week before the mid-semester break, I arrive for a lecture on the subject of Social and Emotional Development across the Lifespan. The lecture is on love and intimacy in adult relationships. My teacher goes on to speak in depth about breakups via the clinical term ‘ambiguous loss’, which subsequently leads to ‘ambiguous grief’. Signs and symptoms of this ambiguous phenomena are familiar to me, after having experienced a rather profound and indistinct sense of loss following the breakdown of my relationship two years prior.
I peer around the room and notice that, unusually, nobody is on their phone or taking notes. Instead, everyone’s attention is glued to the front of the room where my teacher is explaining the meaning of ambiguous loss. They explain: “[ambiguous loss] is an unresolved kind of loss where the person you are grieving is simultaneously present (alive and physically healthy) and absent (unreachable and out of your life).” My teacher stresses that we need to take ambiguous losses seriously, as they can profoundly disrupt our social and emotional development. Sitting in the silent lecture theater, it occurs to me I am not the only one who finds this content relatable. I realise that my peers are also transfixed – perhaps their own ambiguous grief is still bouncing around them too, unresolved.
Ambiguous grief, such as that in relationship breakdowns, can be just as challenging as bereavement grief
Society is quick to associate the term grief with the kind of loss involving permanent bereavement, but grief comes in many more forms than we might imagine. In a clinical setting, grief is also used to describe the experience of longing for a missing person, someone lost in dementia, someone mourning an addiction, or someone processing a relationship or marriage breakdown. Ambiguous loss and its associated grief can be just as challenging as bereavement loss.
The ambiguous loss of a relationship breakup can be painful in a different way, as it also often encompasses rejection. It is difficult to process and accept the loss of a person who is physically still here but has decided they don’t want to see you anymore. Ambiguous grief is hard to address, and hard to process. This is especially true when you’re running into your ex-partner at the market, a bar, or confronted by their images on dating sites or social media. Ambiguous losses are known to linger and can leave a person in a perpetual state of uncertainty and stress, among other subtle signs of grief.
Minimalising ambiguous grief can be harmful
Denial or intolerance of ambiguous grief may be more common in relationship breakdowns than in other kinds of ambiguous loss, such as dementia, addictions, or missing persons. Why, though? Is it largely due to the way breakups take up most of the real estate in popular culture?
Breakups are emphasised as being one of the most normative experiences in our culture, featured in top hits, to literary best sellers, to binge-worthy television series. This is to say, the universality and prevalence of the breakup means the experience may be minimised when it finally happens to you. One should not have to be married or have children for the relationship breakdown to be treated as a non-trivial manner. The truth is that all breakups can lead to ambiguous grief, as the grief is one of love and attachment loss, not just legalities and logistics.
It’s not uncommon to receive minimising responses from those around you during a breakup. You may even criticise yourself for feeling grief, having internalised unhelpful stories in society about what kind of break-ups are ‘worthy’ of mourning. However, my teacher warns that to treat a breakup in such a way, or be told to simply ‘get over it, move on,’ or ‘rebound’, is not conducive to healing. As many other developmental and clinical psychologists agree, to process and get through the ambiguous grief, one must acknowledge the ambiguous loss.
Ambiguous loss can have ripple effects on our sense of identity, future plans and core beliefs
I was sitting in front of the fire at The Broken Heart Consultation consoling my sad aunty, when it occurred to me why breakups are so profound: one major loss leads to many little losses. One ‘we need to talk,’ has quite the domino effect of what psychologist’s tend to call, ‘secondary losses’. A secondary loss might be something quite tangible like the loss of financial stability, a pet or physical living arrangement. Or, it might be abstract like a dismantling of one’s identity, future plans, or core beliefs. A secondary loss could also be a loss of the partner’s family that had, by extension, become your own pseudo-family. This was my aunty at the consultation. I could see my aunty was a toppled domino, mourning the loss of her pseudo-daughter.
The morning after The Broken Heart Consultation, another cousin of mine picked me up for a week away by the beach. I climbed into her car with all the books and wine I could carry and enquired excitedly, ‘what’s news?!’ I felt her take a deep breath in before informing me, with an uncharacteristic wobble in her voice, that she and her partner had broken up. My jaw dropped and I felt winded, clammy, and forlorn next to her – grieving for her. I rubbed her shoulder and insisted I drive, unsure of what else to do. She proceeded to explain the details of the breakup to me over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour drive. She had instigated the separation after hearing her now-ex had been inappropriate with a close friend of hers.
Acknowledging, respecting and talking about grief in a safe environment can help
One does not have to be the recipient of the breakup to experience ambiguous loss, nor does one have to be mourning a perfect relationship. For the next week, I encouraged my cousin to talk about the partner and probed her with gentle questions where I felt it appropriate. I participated in acknowledging my cousin’s grief, I left her mourn, cherish, and ridicule aspects of their shared past. Together we discussed her desired boundaries for communication with her ex-partner, both online and in the realm of inevitable face to face encounters. Finally, we cultivated hope, and spoke long into the holiday about all the many epic loves and broken hearts the world still has in store for us. I encourage you to be open with your own ambiguous grief, to allow it the space and care it deserves.
You can learn more about ambiguous loss by listening to this podcast.
You can also read more about how to support yourself through a relationship breakup here.
If you are experiencing any kind of grief or loss, you’re not alone. Click here to book in with one of our experiences Psychologists for support with the grieving process.