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Hope: Virtue or Villain for Ambiguous Grief?

Exposing this double agent may be the secret to helping ambiguous grievers heal.

Key points

  • For ambiguous grievers, when misdirected, hope can be as dangerous as it is good.
  • Identifying how hope presents — internally, externally and as cycling — can inform how people are healing.
  • Extended external efforts to restore a relationship risk the development of prolonged grief disorder.
Adobe Stock
Source: Adobe Stock

Emily Dickinson famously wrote of it as “the thing with feathers that perches on the soul and sings a tune without the words and never stops at all”. Aristotle described it as “a waking dream”, William Shakespeare referred to it as medicine for the miserable, and it anchored the iconic artwork of Barak Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In Catholicism, it accompanies love and faith as virtues; held as moral and righteous behavior to exemplify. From ancient philosophers and prodigious poets to religious texts and modern musings, the star of scribe and scripture I’m referencing is the experience of hope. Chances are, you’re already familiar with this feel-good phenom. But there’s another side of hope you should know, too.

Especially if you’re grieving someone who is still living.

Hope In Ambiguous Grief

In the wake of an unexpected and devastating divorce, I found myself in deep grief. But because there was no physical death and therefore no social norms to engage, my grief was ambiguous and went largely unseen by others. During this time, I listened intently to hope sing its tune, searching it for answers like a heartbroken teenager with the latest Taylor Swift album. I came to recognize my hope after identifying it in other ambiguous grievers and learned that it can be activated by a myriad of life-altering events. In addition to divorce, ambiguous grief may occur upon the discovery of a secret, a medical diagnosis, addiction, cognitive decline, estrangement, identity change, and incarceration, (just to name a few!).

Unfortunately, most people don’t know their painful experience has a name, so it often goes unidentified by the griever and invalidated by others. Like grieving a physical death, ambiguous grievers experience a wide range of feelings through non-linear stages. However, unlike grief onset by physical death, the focus of hope for ambiguous grievers isn’t on reuniting with their loved one in an afterlife, but on reconciling or restoring the relationship in this life. Since both parties are still living, the effort is understandable, so we fill ourselves with hope and hang onto its every word.

But this is a problem because sometimes, hope is a liar.

What Is Hope?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hope as “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” In examining it through the lens of the ambiguous grief process, I define hope as “a feeling of expectation, longing, or desire for the relationship to return to its previous state.” Using this definition, I developed a survey about hope during ambiguous grief, the results of which affirmed much of what I suspected, along with something I hadn’t.

Yes, hope is helpful, and a broad body of research supports its benefits. However, for ambiguous grievers, when it is misdirected, hope may be as dangerous as it is good.

The Two Sides of Hope

When considering this, think of hope as a double agent, working for both sides. Hope sometimes

shows up with orders to drive your healthy healing and at other times to sabotage your efforts. Though both are derived from the same source, this deft double agent presents in two distinct ways: as external hope and internal hope.

  • External hope directs time and energy to the other person and restoring the relationship as it once was.
  • Internal hope directs focus to the self in the present, with attention to life as it is, not as we wish it to be.

The good news is that once you’re able to identify which hope you’re dealing with, you can prepare for each. Unfortunately, when you’re traversing the destabilizing mountain of grief, it can be (frustratingly) challenging to discern between them. That’s why, instead of blindly trekking on, I encourage ambiguous grievers to pause, and examine the answer to one vital question: How do you hope?

How Do You Hope? Look for These Clues

When grieving a loved one who is still living, getting familiar with how hope presents for you is key. You can do this by paying attention to what exactly it is that you’re hoping for. For example, are you hoping your estranged adult child will read the letter you sent and reach out to you with an apology? Or are you hoping to find the right combination of treatment and tough love to help your partner overcome their behavioral addictions? Both are examples of external hope, whereas hoping you can find a trusted therapist to help you process your divorce or join a support group for incarcerated spouses hoping to find a friend, are both examples of internal hope.

Investigating Internal Hope

The practice of internal hope helps us to accept that the relationship cannot be restored as it once was and requires repeated acts focused on the self. Actions of internal hope include a commitment to talk therapy, setting healthy boundaries, goal setting and planning (for yourself), initiating, or accepting social engagements, participating in events, journaling, trying a new hobby, or reviving an old one — whatever (non-destructive) activities bring you joy!

But internal hope is often painful, especially in the beginning — and why wouldn’t it be? We are letting go of what is outside of our control and releasing efforts to restore our relationship or fix the problems of our loved one and instead, directing attention to our own. This may feel foreign at first (it did for me!) and may be especially challenging if you’ve spent more time focused on your loved one than yourself. In addition, it can also be painful since such a shift requires letting go of the relationship as it once was, including dreams for your future, and reimagining your life and a future without that relationship.

Exploring External Hope

Conversely, those led by external hope are not focused on their own needs but are consumed with behaviors directed to healing the person or relationship that has changed or ended. Some examples include excessively researching treatment options, fixating on their loved one’s whereabouts and activities, seeking reasons to engage, determining “if-then” scenarios intended to signal relational repair, and in some cases casting bids of familiarity. Such acts feel good and are internalized by many external hopers as a proactive and productive use of time and energy. Even though such efforts largely fail to produce the desired outcome, doing so provides a welcome alternative to self-reflection and an examination of personal wounds.

Unlike internal hope, which often feels like propelling yourself across corroded and unstable monkey bars, external hope feels like an exhilarating, world-class amusement park slide. While it’s understandable that external hope may feel more enjoyable, the consequences for repeat riders are far riskier.

Repeat Riders Beware

Too much time riding the slide of external hope risks transport into something worse than the discomfort of those old monkey bars. Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) is a new diagnosable mental health condition, that for me, evokes images of quicksand — a dangerous pit no one willingly chooses and once immersed, is nearly impossible to escape without outside assistance.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, defines PGD as “a persistent and pervasive grief response characterized by the longing for or preoccupation with the deceased, accompanied by intense emotional pain.” Previously known as “complicated grief”, PGD is diagnosable with the presentation of intense emotional pain, along with three of eight symptoms, and is estimated to impact 10%-15% of bereaved people in the general population.

Though for ambiguous grievers the loved one is not deceased, the definition of PGD applies, and if diagnosed, requires professional intervention. If you or someone you love are exhibiting symptoms of PGD, the Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University offers an online assessment as well as other resources.

Cycling With Hope

Because the two sides of hope aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s natural to cycle between both. There may be times you may feel confident as you focus on yourself and dream about the life you’re creating, only to abandon those plans and once again, direct your attention to your loved one. Not only can this help us to better understand the nuances of hope and grief, but it can help to course-correct as needed.

Build Momentum to Move Forward

No matter what activating event caused your ambiguous grief and regardless of which hope is dominating your day, remember that you get to decide which hope drives your tomorrow. My hope is that you will make an intentional commitment toward healing and begin to practice internal hope, even if only in one small way.

The more you do, you may find, as I did, that hidden treasures abound. Not only in the richness of new places and people who adorn your reimagined life but in the newly discovered gems mined from deep within you.

You can do it. I'm rooting for you!

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