Understanding Ambivalence in Loss and Grief

What is ambivalent loss?

In simple terms, ambivalence can be understood as a state of tension that occurs when we have opposing beliefs, feelings or behaviours towards a person, object, experience or situation.

A certain level of ambivalence in any relationship is universal, and not necessarily always hugely significant. In fact, there are few relationships that are devoid of or not complicated, by some level of hostility or difficulty at some point.

When considering ambivalence in loss and grief, it is safe to assume that it is common for most people dealing with the death of a loved one. It was Freud who believed that an important precursor to depression in the wake of the death of a loved one, was if the relationship before death was an ambivalent one.

There are many books written on mourning and grief, on how to cope with loss, or how to adapt to loneliness of loss. But, where are the resources for those who had a conflicted relationship, where is the book on managing unsaid or unspoken feelings or emotions, where is the book to help guide through a eulogy or funeral where you wish to speak up, but do not know how due unspoken ambivalence.

In this brief article, I aim to consider ambivalence in loss and grief, outline how or why ambivalent loss may occur, explore how to manage ambivalent loss, and look at how psychotherapy can help.

 How or why ambivalent loss may occur

 Each experience of loss and grief is unique and personal, however as explained earlier, ambivalence in loss and grief is fairly common. Below are some reasons which could lead to ambivalence in the grieving process. This list is no means exhaustive, and is given as an example only.

 Unfinished or unresolved feelings

This is a common component of ambivalent loss, yet can be very difficult to manage. Grieving can be interrupted when there are unresolved difficulties or feelings towards the person who has die. Ambivalence occurs due to the confliction of feelings, because on the one hand you may experience a sense of relief, and at the same time feel hurt that the things you wanted to say, even if these were negative, were not ever fully vocalized.

 Lack of contact before the death

A period of lack of communication, contact or relationship before the death can lead to a deep sense of ambivalence, and can raise questions about the distance between you and the person who has died, and the nature of your relationship. There can be a sense of longing to go back and change those elements of the relationship which led to the lack of communication, and bring about regret and maybe guilt.

 An abusive or psychologically damaging relationship

This a highly complex topic and therefore, the following is given only as a brief overview. Locating the true nature of this type of ambivalent loss can be incredibly difficult, as it takes an exploration of complicated ambivalent thoughts. On the one hand, the death of a person who may have represented terror, trauma, pain and hurt, and for whom you may hold anger or hatred. On the other, there can also be a sense of loss for someone for whom at one point you may have felt care, or even love for. Reconciling these two opposing views is incredibly challenging, leading in some cases to a sense of shame for even experiencing grief instead of rejoicing the death of someone who may have put you through very painful experiences.

 Remembering the deceased differently to others

When your experience or memory of the deceased is wholly different to that of others, especially family members or friends, can make grieving very difficult. Remembering the person who has died with negative feelings can feel somehow feel disingenuous, unfair or even untrue. It can lead to a sense of ambivalence about the true nature of your feelings, and a desire to keep these feelings hidden for fear of upsetting others.

 Managing ambivalent loss

 Managing or understanding ambivalent loss will be different for each person, but there are some strategies which can assist in this process. The list below is not comprehensive or exhaustive, and is given as an example only –

  • Remember ambivalence is a natural part of the grieving process
  • Remember ambivalent feelings or thoughts you might be embarrassed or ashamed about, do not take away from the positive qualities you remember about the person
  • Allow space in your mind for the conflicting thoughts, and know that this is ok
  • Talk openly about your thoughts with someone who you know is able to listen
  • Remember that thoughts are only thoughts, they do not always equate to truth, and you are not a bad person for simply having them

How psychotherapy can help

 Grief and loss are universal, inevitable and unavoidable elements of life. But when loss is left unexplored, left unspoken or thought about, difficult feelings can surface, leading to ambivalence and difficulty in facilitating the grieving process. Psychotherapy can assist in the process of unravelling grief, provide a space where all aspects of loss are open for debate, and reflection. Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to look in depth at the conflicted feelings you may have surrounding the death, and can enable you to explore these, with the view to understanding in more detail how you feel.

 In closing

 As previously stated, a degree of ambivalence is to be expected, and is a normal element of the grieving process. Nonetheless, it can be incredibly difficult and painful to grieve when you experience conflicting emotions for the person who has died.

 Grief will never have a clear-cut path, nor will it ever follow a pattern, and no theory on grief can ever explain how you will feel, but given time and reflection on the full range of our conflicted emotions and feelings, we will be able to work towards finding ourselves in a place where can begin to make sense of the process of grief and loss.


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