Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous Loss

by Jennifer Johnson

When a family member or friend passes away, there are societal and/or religious rituals that we go through to mourn the loss of this person. These rituals are accompanied by an outpouring of love and support for those closest to the deceased. But what about those times when something significant is lost but there is no body (literally or figuratively) to bury?

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a day that changed the world. Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City left thousands not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive. These families struggled to come to terms with their losses, not knowing when to stop hoping their loved ones would return, and then not having a body to bury to provide closure. Pauline Boss, a renowned therapist and loss researcher, was called on to help some of these struggling families. She identified these losses as “ambiguous losses.” They are not as clear-cut as someone dying, and thus they are less recognized by society as a loss. Therefore, support may be more elusive.

I experienced ambiguous loss in my own life when a relationship with a significant other ended. I had not felt much support from my friends and family for this relationship so, when it ended, I did not feel like I could express my feelings of hurt or sadness out of fear that others would simply dismiss them and tell me, “I told you so.” I harbor no hard feelings about this experience, but instead experience greater understanding of the experience of ambiguous loss.

Similar experiences of ambiguous loss can result from a family member being abducted or going missing, having a miscarriage, children moving out of the house, struggling with mental illness, or losing a parent psychologically to Alzheimer’s disease, just to name a few. Sometimes a loved one is missing physically but still present psychologically, while other times the loved one is missing psychologically but present physically.

So what did Boss discover was helpful in working with those suffering “ambiguous losses”? She brought together groups experiencing this same type of loss and had them tell their stories. They told stories about the missing loved ones, as well as their experiences coping with the news that their loved ones were missing. Sharing stories brought about healing.

Everyone is affected by ambiguous loss in different ways. What can be life shattering for one person might only be mildly distressing to someone else. Just being able to give the loss a name made all the difference though. Boss found that naming the loss as ambiguous helped to diminish feelings of self-blame and increased individuals’ tolerance for not having a clear answer. What is great about this concept is that you do not have to have a fancy degree or specialized education to understand ambiguous loss and to apply this knowledge to make life a little easier to bear.

So the next time you encounter someone who seems to be struggling with a loss like what I have described, reach out your arms with love and ask them to tell you their story, showing by your listening that what they are experiencing is real and that you are there for them.

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