Dr. Gloria Horsley with the Open to Hope Foundation interviews Dr. Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Ambiguous loss is one that’s unclear. It’s not death—perhaps someone is physically missing, such as a soldier MIA or a 9/11 disappearance. There’s also being psychologically missing, like with dementia or severe addiction. In her doctoral research as a grad student, Dr. Boss got interested in ambiguous loss and this has continued throughout her career.
It’s different than death because there’s no validation. With no body to bury, no death certificate, and no closure, it’s very challenging to cope. A complicated loss means a complicated grief. Thus far, complicated grief has been on par with a perceived weak psyche. However, it’s the situation that’s crazy—not the person. There’s nothing wrong with a person grieving an ambiguous loss. The situation can go on forever.
A Kind-of Loss
There are many books to help you deal with it. Finding meaning and sense is critical, even in spite of the ambiguity. You can think in a both/and way, or a dialectical way. It requires saying to yourself, “My loved one is here, but they’re also not here.” “My loved one is probably dead, but maybe not.” This is a difficult way to think, but it can be achieved. If you can achieve it, you can move forward.
This way of thinking can be a practice for the rest of your life. You’ll slip from time to time, but it’s the only way to cope with such a challenging loss. Getting professional help and reaching out for support is important. These kinds of losses can also be disenfranchised, and it’s a little more difficult to find those who can empathize with your situation, but they do exist.