Memorial Day and Ambiguous Grief

Already a complicated phenomenon, grief is sometimes even more complicated.

Missing in action statistics

For example, many people are grieving loved ones who served in the military and are missing in action (MIA).

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, 81,000 people from the United States were missing in action:

  • 72,598 people missing from World War II
  • 7,580 people were missing from the Korean War
  • 1,587 people were missing from Vietnam
  • 126 people were missing because of the Cold War
  • 6 people have been missing from conflicts that occurred in 1991 or later

Even if we assume that some of these people from the older conflicts have died since then, that means that there are thousands of U.S. families who are grieving.

They don’t know where their loved ones are, if they’re alive, or really much about them at all. They don’t know if they should continue to hope that their loved ones are still alive or accept the fact they may be gone. They can’t say goodbye to their loved ones or grieve in more traditional ways.

Ambiguous grief

People who are grieving loved ones who are missing in action are experiencing something called ambiguous grief or ambiguous loss. They’re grieving someone, but they’re not going through the traditional process of acknowledging and addressing death.

Other people might experience ambiguous grief. For example, people might grieve someone who has dementia or a mental illness.

In these cases, the objects of people’s grief are still alive, but their relationships may have changed so profoundly that they prompt people to mourn for the past.

Similarly, sometimes people experience ambiguous grief for loved ones who have addictions. Even though people with addictions are alive, they’re not really present because their addictions are in charge of their lives, not them. Their loved ones mourn the people they once were.

To counteract this ambiguous grief, grief therapist Katy Friedman Miller notes how 12-step support groups encourage their members to detach. According to Friedman Miller, detaching is “practicing new ways of interacting and thinking … giving up your own ego … [so you don’t feel] responsible for the addicted person’s actions, successes, failure, or death.” She adds that this can help people “accept that the person you love is both there and not there.”

Memorial Day honors people we lost. Maybe it can also acknowledge the people who grieve them.

Sources – Missing in Action: How Military Families in Tortuous Limbo Galvanized a Movement – Addiction Withdrawal Definition – Missing in Action, Ambiguous Loss, and Grieving When Someone Is Still Alive

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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