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What is Ambiguous Grief? Psychotherapist Gina Moffa Wrote the Guide to Dealing With This Tricky Emotion

What is Ambiguous Grief? Psychotherapist Gina Moffa Wrote the Guide to Dealing With This Tricky Emotion

By Gina Moffa, LCSW
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Grief can be a sneaky jerk. 

It’s heavy, and scary; it upends our world. And even as a licensed grief and trauma therapist who has seen her fair share of losses, I’d prefer to keep grief in a tidy box saved for moments when I’m wearing mascara waterproof enough to withstand a tsunami.

But that’s not how grief works. It creeps up on us and has a nasty habit of infiltrating our lives while we are busy living them. And, it sticks with us. 

The uncertainty, anxiety, even despair of grief is what brings people to my couch. At this point in my career, I've accompanied hundreds of people through major losses. Many are grieving a parent, child, grandparent, or the death of a pet. But just as often, I see people who don’t realize they are grieving—because, well, nobody died. It could be a parent with dementia who forgot their name for the first time, someone facing an indefinite estrangement with a friend or family member, or someone who feels homesick for a place they’ve left behind. 

It’s all grief.  

When we lose someone we love, we lose the rituals and routines that kept us securely in our relationship to that person, and we’re confronted with an uninvited shift in our identity. We are forced—as grief always requires of us—to look at our life in a new way. It can be so confusing and disorienting, all we wish for is something to guide us through and tell us it will be okay. Somehow. 

Ambiguous losses are no less impactful and, in fact, often require more compassion because they are typically less recognized by our support networks than death-losses. When we don’t know how to engage with our feelings after a loss, we tend to bully ourselves into just being okay or hurrying up to get on with feeling “better”. We compare ourselves and our situation to others around us or people in the same outward scenario. Rarely do we give our losses and the grief that accompanies them, the gentle acknowledgement they truly deserve.

While no two people are quite alike in how they process, I've noticed that there are common patterns to the way we cope with our grief. I call these the "grief rhythms." 


The Grief Rhythms are the eight most common patterns of behavior people fall into when they're faced with loss (and well, any really hard time). Knowing your own rhythm is a way to recognize your needs and the way you tend to cope with painful, life-changing events.  

In essence, it’s a shortcut to new understanding, self-compassion and accountability, helping you to manage expectations around your own grief process—your needs, your timeline, and what you can take on emotionally in each moment. 


No rhythm is inherently good or bad, but getting acquainted with yours can give you a sense of agency at a time when you may feel lost, alone, and uncertain. You may see yourself in one of these rhythms or notice that you rotate between a few. It’s also common for your rhythm to change with time. Whatever your rhythm, know that it’s perfectly normal and that there is no right way to experience loss in your life. 

Grief rhythm No. 1: The Survivor

The survivor doesn’t have time to grieve; they need to make it through the day. They likely have kids to take care of, or a sick relative, or a job where they might not get paid without working. Survivors stay focused on the urgent matters at hand, and most of us experience this rhythm to some degree in the early stages of losses, when logistics and pragmatics have to take center stage. 

Grief rhythm No. 2: The Intellectualizer

This is a rhythm of information gatherers. They read every book and blog, and listen to every podcast. They find comfort in knowing how they feel, but rarely make time to actually feel it. 

Grief rhythm No. 3: The Diver

The Diver is very comfortable with feelings. The Diver wants to tell the world about their loss, go to all the support groups and share all of the deepest feelings with others, whether in real life or on social media. 

Grief rhythm No. 4: The Mover

This is someone who is always on the go. It’s a common misconception that Movers are running away from their feelings. Though that can happen, it’s also true some feelings are just so traumatizing or excruciating to put into words, and need to work through moving and doing. 

Grief rhythm No. 5: The Compartmentalizer

The compartmentalizer sits at the control board of our feelings, ready to turn on autopilot at any moment to get through a social situation or a work day, or take care of practical things without emotion “getting in the way.” Compartmentalizers are masters of putting their emotional experience aside and seeming fine until there is a safe time to allow the emotions to flow. 

Grief rhythm No. 6: The Ruminator

The ruminator spends a lot of time replaying all of the things and details they wish were different. It’s the rhythm of coulda, woulda, shoulda. This is someone who will go over every detail with a magnifying glass, particularly what wasn’t done or said. Ruminators can battle guilt and have a harder time engaging their loss without cycling through different scenarios again and again. 

Grief rhythm No. 7: The Emotional/Spiritual Bypasser

This person will use cliches, quotes, spiritual texts, or adages to comfort themselves and others to side-step the agony of grief. This is not the same as having faith, and someone’s true expression of faith is not bypassing. This rhythm is for those who believe in “positive vibes only” and have trouble allowing the authentically painful emotional experience to be front and center, even if just for a while.  

Grief rhythm No. 8: The Quality Controller

The quality controller wants to oversee all the other rhythms to make sure they are grieving “right.” It’s the rhythm that makes sure we’ve read the right books, listened to the best podcasts, and talks about their loss—but not “too much”! This person is constantly reading the room to make sure they aren’t taking up too much space with their emotions. 


The goal of knowing your rhythm is to give yourself permission to take your own inner journey at your own pace and to understand your ways of coping when things feel really, really hard. We are so quick to judge ourselves when we think we are doing something “wrong.” It can also help those who love and support you to understand your individual grieving rhythms a little better.. 

We all have our own ways of managing our physical and emotional experiences after loss, and what’s important to remember is there is no one right way to grieve. All you can do is be aware of your tendencies so you can meet your grief with more honesty and more gentle, caring attention. 

When it comes to our many different forms of loss, understanding how we cope can help bring us the self-awareness to know what to do next, or how to be more patient and present with ourselves. 

Your experience of loss is personal and valid. Grief is a messy reminder of what matters, and that deserves compassion and respect. Give yourself grace, be patient, and know that whomever or whatever your loss, it’s okay not to feel better in a few weeks, or even months. 

With time, support and tender allowance, you will learn to flow alongside your rhythms—whatever they may be. 

Click here to get your copy of Moffa's latest book.

Gina Moffa, LCSW, MA, is a licensed psychotherapist, mental health educator, and media consultant in New York City.

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