I can’t go on my child’s field trip because it’s too much walking. Is there a good hospital close to where I’m traveling? I need to cancel plans—again—with my friends. Chronic illness often brings unexpected losses in nearly every season, making it seem impossible to properly grieve and heal. Grieving ambiguous loss in chronic illness means trusting God in layers of unresolved loss.
Defining Ambiguous Grief
The term “ambiguous loss” was first defined by Dr. Pauline Boss. It’s come to mean a “loss experienced [that] doesn’t have a trajectory with a beginning, middle, and end.” Ambiguous grief is related to one of these types of loss: a psychological loss with a physical presence, such as a brain injury, dementia or loss of your own physical capabilities from an illness or injury. Or a physical loss with psychological presence, such as a miscarriage, a missing person or divorce.While ambiguous loss may have no real resolution, we don’t need to stay frozen in our grief. God’s Word promises hope even in the unknowns.
Naming the Losses
Chronic illness often brings unexpected losses in nearly every season, making it seem impossible to properly grieve and heal. Grieving my ambiguous loss in chronic illness means trusting God in layers of unresolved loss.
- Relationships—friendships, marriages, and even parenthood are impacted.
- Jobs—many face the inability to work or feel like you’re making meaningful contributions to your household.
- Hobbies and social interactions—leisure activities, exercise, and social gatherings are often impacted by how you feel that day.
- Physical or mental exhaustion— doing daily tasks like self-care or small chores may be overwhelming at times.
- Lack of a diagnosis, treatment or cure—many with invisible illnesses take years to get a named diagnosis. Then, treatments are often trial-and-error with no true cure.
- Side effects of treatments—often, the side effects need management and can add to the physical and mental exhaustion.
- The mental and emotional toll—anxiety, depression and apathy can threaten to overwhelm you.
God knows your weaknesses and your needs before you ever utter them. But He wants you to bring them to Him in an act of trust in His care and goodness. Even if He doesn’t heal you or take away your pain that day, name your weaknesses to Him. In Psalm 62:8, we are reminded to pour out our hearts before God because He is a trusted refuge. We can be honest with the God who made us. Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:1-2, ESV)
Grounding Your Identity in Christ
For many chronic illness sufferers, previous identities are lost or threatened. We hitch our worth to our abilities to perform and produce; when our bodies can’t keep up, we feel lost.With my diagnosis and a major health crisis 10 years ago, I had to step away from a growing career in public relations after I’d just received a promotion. The first few years of my “new normal” were all-consuming, and I wondered if I’d ever use my skills and passion to write again. I was also a new mother who had a serious, invisible rare disease.
God welcomes our laments over what was lost, but staying there indefinitely is unwise. Pastor and theologian John Piper gives this advice to those who suffer: “Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that he’s given you.” As a follower of Jesus Christ, your identity is rooted in much more than your job title or your physical abilities. You may have an unpredictable body, but you have an unchanging, trustworthy Savior. For those who are in Christ, the Bible says you are:
- Fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:4)
- Bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20)
- Hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3)
- A new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- Sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30)
- Purposeful (Ephesians 2:10)
- Created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7)
Chronic illness doesn’t change any of these things. As a gentle caution, Joni Eareckson Tada (a quadriplegic and founder of the Joni and Friends disability ministry) says we must study Christ more than seeking to find who we are. “As you reach inside the layers of Jesus, you see more of yourself, transformed by the very discipline of knowing him better.”
Meditating on Christ gives us perspective on our identities and circumstances despite chronic illness.
Finding Hope and Joy in the Ambiguity
While the timeline on grief from chronic illness is indefinite and often unending, Christ-centered hope helps us build endurance in this journey of faith and suffering.
Dr. Boss suggests seeking help in both therapy and community. We don’t need to suffer alone, and inviting others into our pain allows His church to exercise compassion and attend to the hurting as God intends. Isolation is fertile ground for anxiety, loneliness and depression. At times, professional help and medicine may be needed.
Additionally, Dr. Boss recommends celebrating what remains, like a friendship that endures, and uncovering hope for the future, such as discovering a new hobby or reimagining new opportunities (like working from home). This is even more true for the believer.
We can celebrate our current lives because God’s care is always present. Joy can co-exist with suffering, and having a grateful heart that celebrates life’s gifts helps us balance our grief. Keeping a journal of physical and spiritual gifts helps remind us of God’s goodness.
And meditating on the hope we have in God this side of heaven, helps us see the good even in a life of ambiguous loss. Take a look at these verses:
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. (Hebrews 12:28, ESV)
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5, ESV)
This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life. (Psalm 119:50, ESV)
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)