Have You Suffered an Ambiguous Loss?

I had never heard of ambiguous loss until my daughter, a licensed family therapist, told me about it. 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.

What is ambiguous loss? Basically, it is loss without closure. There is no body or death certificate. You may be experiencing this loss now if a parent has Alzheimer’s, a sibling has chronic mental illness, a runaway child has never been fund, or a military spouse is missing in Afghanistan.

According to Pauline Boss, ambiguous loss is the most devastating of losses “because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” But there is more to it than first meets the eyes.

Several years ago, I attended a memorial service for a close relative. Though several people said “hello,” nobody really acknowledged me. Nobody introduced me. Nobody asked me to participate in the service. As I listened to family members’ comments and viewed the photo display, I realized I didn’t know my deceased relative any more.

After the service, family members met at a local restaurant for lunch. With a few exceptions, most family members continued to ignore me, and I felt like an outsider. You would think I had a communicable disease.

I thought about the service for years, and every time I did, I became uncomfortable. Finally, I emailed Dr. Boss. In my email, I said I didn’t think I had suffered an ambiguous loss. But she said I had, a reply that surprised me.

Like all grief, ambiguous loss has a ripple effect on the family. Dr. Boss describes the effects in her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. She thinks ambiguous loss baffles the people who aren’t going through it. The uncertainty of loss blocks your recovery. That’s bad enough, but you are also denied the symbolic rituals of loss. In fact, people may withdraw from you. Ambiguous loss makes you feel helpless.

Though ambiguous loss and anticipatory grief are different, they have two similarities. With anticipatory grief, you are always waiting for death to occur. “Will this be the day?” you ask. The same is true of ambiguous loss and you ask, “Will this be the day he or she is found?” While I was caring for my demented mother, I hoped a cure would be found for Alzheimer’s. Hope is part of anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss.

According to Dr. Boss, ambiguous loss can traumatize 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,” she writes. “It is not post anything.” Learning more about ambiguous loss helped me greatly and I think it will help you.

Today, though I still have sad feelings about the memorial service I attended, I don’t dwell on these feelings. Instead, I enjoy the happy and satisfying life I have with my husband of 55 years and my twin grandchildren. The kids are college sophomores now, and pursuing exciting careers. Life isn’t dull at our house!

Harriett Hodgson 2012

Harriet Hodgson

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Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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