There’s plenty of uncertainty as we make our way through our lives, but we figure death is about the most certain thing there is. This nice neat separation gets blown to smithereens for those stuck in griefland limbo. Sure enough, there is a professional term for this: ambiguous grief. No, not “ambivalent,” though there is that kind too. But at the moment I am referring to “ambiguous” grief. How can that be, you may ask. Isn’t “dead” or “alive” about as obvious as it gets? How could the sheriff’s sign for the capture of a famed criminal say, “wanted, dead or alive or in between”?
Alas, even this totally dead or totally alive distinction cannot hold up. Suppose an individual has been missing for some time, but no dead body is ever found to prove that all hope is lost, as in the case thus far of the Malaysia Airlines “mystery” flight number 370. Just as confounding is when a person is right in front of you but they no longer know who you are. Or they do, but they are so deteriorated that the relationship is essentially altered from what it had been. Sure, that person is not physically dead, but the connection they used to have with you sure is. Either way, whether talking about physically missing persons or emotionally missing ones, they are here in one way and not here in another, like those frisky elementary particles in quantum physics.
Even the “run-of-the-mill” type of grief has its shadings of ambiguity. In my last post, I alluded to the loss of my very close friend Jack. I knew he was going to die, and as the time drew near, I understood when it was imminent. Yes, when he was alive, he was “all there” and could talk like he always had almost until the last several weeks, but from diagnosis 5 years ago until the end, we were no longer in the same league. His life was most likely to be foreshortened; mine most likely would continue on to old age, which so far is still true 5 years later. Each year his domain grew smaller and smaller, while in certain ways mine extended more and more. In essence, I grieved from start to finish, from diagnosis to death, that we were no longer in sync. I grieved the uncertainty writ large that he had to face compared with the “small print” uncertainties, I the “spared” had dealt with regarding my own longevity.
Like those mischievous quantum particles that won’t behave and settle down, grief does not bunch up within one segment of time, but rather spreads out in varying intensity over an indeterminate number of months and years, backwards and forwards.