My daughter is a licensed family therapist. One day she sent me an email, asking if I was familiar with ambiguous loss. Though I’ve studied grief for years and written six grief resources, I wasn’t familiar with the term. Now I know more about it.
This loss is one without closure. There is no body or death certificate, for one thing. All of the families associated with September 11th have suffered ambiguous loss. You may be experiencing this loss if a parent has Alzheimer’s, a sibling has chronic mental illness, a runaway child has never been found, or a military spouse is missing in Afghanistan.
The term was coined by Pauline Boss, PhD, of the University of Minnesota. It came from her research and the clinical studies she has been conducting since 1974. Dr. Boss retired from the U of M and is currently a therapist in private practice. She thinks this type of loss is the most devastating of all “because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” Boss goes on to explain the power of this loss in her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.
Reading the book made me recall an experience I had several years ago. I attended a memorial service for a close relative. Several people greeted me and the rest ignored me. Nobody introduced me as a relative. Nobody asked me to participate in the service. As I listened to family members’ comments and viewed the photo display, I realized my deceased relative had changed. Indeed, I didn’t know him any more.
After the memorial service, family members gathered together at a local restaurant for lunch. Most continued to ignore me and I felt like an outsider. One would think I had a communicable disease. I have often thought about this service, and every time I do, I am uncomfortable. Finally, I sent Dr. Boss an email. In it, I said I didn’t think I had suffered an ambiguous loss, but she said I had, a reply that surprised me.
Grief has a ripple effect on family members, and so does ambiguous loss. Dr. Boss describes the effects in her book. One is that people who haven’t experienced it are baffled by your response. Uncertainty becomes part of daily life and blocks your recovery. Some who go through the experience are denied the symbolic rituals that go with grief. People may withdraw from you. Finally, you feel totally helpless.
According to Dr. Boss,this type of loss can traumatize over time and its symptoms are similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “With ambiguous loss, the trauma (the ambiguity) continues to exist in the present,” he writes. “It is not post anything.”
Today, though I still feel badly about the memorial service, I don’t dwell on these feelings. The pain has almost faded away. Instead of dwelling on the past, I am absorbed in the present. I’m enjoying a happy and satisfying life with my husband of 55 years and my twin grandchildren, who live with us. I am a fortunate woman indeed.
Copyright 2012 by Harriet Hodgson
Updated: June 20, 2013