Ambiguous Loss in Mentorship

Photo credit: Elisha Terada of

Awhile back, I went through the unexpected loss of a cherished mentor. I wasn’t prepared for the relationship to end; I was struggling in the very circumstances that severed our connection to each other, and I needed my mentor more than ever.

Some mentorships are established on a planned timeline – a semester, a season, a year, two years. Others are open-ended. Our arrangement was the latter. I truly thought this person would be an integral part of my support system for years to come. I was invigorated by our conversations and appreciated the encouragement. I looked forward to our time together, and valued the authenticity of our bond. I admired my mentor’s strength, intelligence, wisdom, and compassion. My mentor helped me grow through some big challenges. I felt and expressed my gratitude. At no time did I want the mentorship to be over.

But end, it did. I’ll leave out the tiresome details. Nobody died. We found ourselves in a complex situation involving other people, and resolving it seemed to demand too much sacrifice and vulnerability on both our parts. We are flawed humans, and our strengths and weaknesses are hopelessly tangled together. What followed was pained and splintered conversations, mental lapses and misunderstandings, unanswered messages, and cancelled sessions. Our mentoring relationship drifted away. We are still around each other frequently. I still admire, care about, and respect my former mentor. I believe that the feelings are mutual.

Meditation teacher davidji has shared 3 reasons why another person will not meet your needs:

  • The other person is not capable of meeting your needs.
  • Your needs are in conflict with the needs of the other person.
  • The other person does not know or understand your needs.

Obviously, if one of the above things happens in your mentorship, it’s far better if you can talk about it, and work through it. My own mentorship collapse featured all of these elements, and to date, we have not figured out how to talk about it in a way that leads to resolution. Words and feelings and actions have failed us.

Letting go is hard, especially when the person is still a presence in my life. For a long time, I wanted to keep trying to talk it out. Sometimes I still feel that way. Sometimes, I still wish we could go back, and make it turn out differently. It’s getting easier to breathe it out instead, and restore the peace in my heart. Allow myself to feel the hurt, and grieve the loss. Rinse and repeat. Find the gratitude. Bless and release. Namaste.

I received a final, unexpected gift from my mentor. This loss left me asking “where do I go from here?” And I have found that answering this question always helps to reveal more of who I am, which takes me closer to the things I authentically want and need. I am not the same person that I was when the mentorship ended. New relationships, experiences, dreams, and identities are unfolding in my life on a daily basis; every one of these beginnings emerged from a seed I planted during that ending. My heart is filling up again.

“We are all just walking each other home.” This is a quote from the psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Ram Dass. In sad times, it re-opens my spirit, and brings me back to myself. My mentor and I walked together, for as long as we could. It was real, and then we got a little lost and ultimately separated. But I’m still ending up where I need to be, and there is a part of that relationship that I will always carry with me.

If you’ve had an ambiguous loss in your life, I wish that you will find freedom from suffering.