Counseling for Ambiguous Loss: One Expert’s Approach

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Counseling for Ambiguous Loss: One Expert's ApproachAmbiguous loss is loss without closure. There is no body to view or bury, no death certificate, no inkling of what happened to your loved one. Uncertainty and worry are part of your days and seep into your being.

Though ambiguous loss has many of the same symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), therapists and counselors treat it differently. Counseling hinges on how long you have been suffering and the strength of your support system. It also hinges on family structure.

Several years ago I suffered an ambiguous loss when a close relative died. I attended the memorial service and, for reasons unknown to me, most of my relatives treated me like a stranger. Hardly anyone talked to me and I wasn’t asked to participate in the service. From the stories relatives shared, and the large photo display, I realized their memories of the deceased differed from mine.

In fact, I hardly recognized the person my relatives described. This made me feel more like a stranger.

Therapist Pauline Boss, PhD, is credited with identifying ambiguous loss. She has developed specialized treatment for it and describes her approach in her book, Loss, Trauma & Resilience. She thinks therapists should communicate with empathy, not sympathy. Focusing on sympathy could make the person feel like a victim.

Boss also thinks therapists should help the person find meaning in loss. With this approach, the therapist helps the person “make sense of an event or situation.” It is hard to make sense of any situation without meaning. So how do you find it? According to Boss, the ways include naming the problem, turning to religion/spirituality, forgiveness, small good works, rituals, and hope.

Another counseling step is to temper one’s concept of mastery. Americans tend to think they can master anything. We can’t. Sooner or later, the time comes when you must accept the facts. While Boss thinks people can’t get over massive losses like September 11th, she thinks people may “learn to live with loss and ambiguity.”

In time, people who have grappled with this experience re-think their attachment to the missing person. Some people disconnect from the person prematurely, according to Boss, and others act as if nothing in their lives has changed. A healthier approach is to detach gradually and stay connected to caring, supportive people.

I didn’t seek counseling. However, I did think about my attachment to my deceased relative. Memories of this person are still clear in my mind. The memory of the painful memorial service has faded, probably due to the fact that I accepted pain and did my grief work. Caring for my twin grandchildren is now the focus of my life.

You may, or may not, be able to let go of painful feelings. Seek counseling if the emotional pain is unbearable and impacting your life negatively. Learning about this type of loss helped me immensely, and I think it will help you. You may also benefit from joining a grief support group.


Copyright 2012 by Harriet Hodgson


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Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 35+ years and is the author of 32 books, including six grief resources. Her latest resources are Happy Again! Your New and Meaningful Life After Loss and Help! I’m Raising My Grandkids: Grandparents Adapting to Life’s Surprises.