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  • Sheila Foster

Ambiguous Loss


I have been thinking and writing a lot lately about ambiguous losses and the devastating circumstances surrounding such losses. Patricia Boss, the woman who coined the term, is author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. I was so grateful to learn that this kind of grief has been recognized and named, as I have lived with numerous ambiguous losses and grief all through my life. I found that ambiguous losses often go unrecognized by family, friends, community, and helping professionals, as well as by those experiencing it. Once recognized, I know from my own experience that much healing can happen, even in the face of the lack of resolution and closure.

The most excruciating losses of my own life have not been the deaths of people or pets that I have loved where there was a clear sense of finality and closure, but the ambiguous losses, the losses filled with confusion, fear, helplessness, and no finality or closure. These losses and the unresolved grief are often suffered and carried alone. The grieving process with death, however difficult, where the finality is evident, happens in stages and we eventually evolve to a place where we come into a new relationship with the death and the deceased. There is recognition by self and others that life as we knew it is clearly over and somehow, in time, and with the support of others, we will move into a new life. Often this does not happen with ambiguous losses and unresolved grief. Life comes to a standstill, We are left on the precipice of the unknown, in limbo, in the excruciation liminality of purgatory, perhaps crazed with fear and fighting the worst, most horrible thoughts and feeling of helplessness and caught in both hope and despair.

There appears to be two types of ambiguous loss:

The first involves the loss of one or more loved ones who are physically alive but there is some condition that makes them unavailable emotionally, mentally, and unable to make relational contact. They are physically there but not there as they used to be.

These ambiguous losses include conditions such as dementia, mental illness, PTSD, addictions, work-aholism, chronic pain, brain injuries, or other traumas to body and soul.

While our loved one’s physical body is still present, the person we knew is no longer there in ways they used to be, and not really capable of relational contact.

Spouses, children, family, and friends of people with these conditions usually experience some combination of increased stress, fear, phases of hope and hopelessness, despair, anger, depression, as well as deep heartbreak and grief, as they witness their loved one disappear, whether it is a gradual loss over the course of years or a sudden, unexpected trauma that starts the process. It can be emotionally devastating, frightening, as well as exhausting to witness and experience people we love go through these radical changes of personality, functioning, and suffering. Often death, though painful, comes as a relief when the loved one finally transitions into death.

Fortunately we live in a time when there are support groups, books, healers, helpers, and spiritual advisors who recognize and understand what it is like for people dealing with this kind of ambiguous loss and can be with a family while they travel through this process. Family therapy, constellation work, individual psychotherapy, spiritual counseling, and spiritual practice can all be of help when we are living with this kind of ambiguous loss.

The other kind of ambiguous loss arises when one or more loved ones are physically gone for reasons known or unknown, yet their psychological presence is still here with us. There is great ambiguity about whether or not they will return, or even lack of knowledge about whether or not they are even still alive.

It is beyond devastating when people we love disappear from our lives and there are no answers or evidence explaining what happened or why, or what the outcome will be. Their whereabouts may be known or not, but there is little or no contact or communication. They are gone but not really. They are in some ways dead to us but not dead. They are part of our family, but not. There’s an empty chair at the tables and a heavy pall of sadness and grief hanging in the air during holidays and special family occasions. There’s not body or ashes, no ritual or funeral, no memorial or burial. There’s nothing but our broken hearts, grief, memories, and whatever items we have that were given to us or belonged to our loved one. They are gone, but not. They live and walk with us on a daily basis in some parallel reality, where sometimes we can sense their presence, and often there is nothing but pain and suffering.

We are caught between hope and despair, perhaps doing everything we can think of to get some kind of information, clarity, and resolution—but it doesn’t come. We feel crazy at times. It is all so surreal, we wonder how this could have happened. On the nights we don’t sleep, we sift through the questions and make up stories with answers that, by sunrise, are meaningless. It doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not, our beloved is gone—but not. We feel lost, forsaken by god/goddess, and our lives become smaller and focused on this terrible loss which we cannot understand or even speak about. We are waiting for something, some news, their return, something to be different than it is. We don’t know how to go on, and wonder if it is even okay to go on.

Endless questions arise: Will there ever be a reunion with our loved one? Can we, or do we have a right to be happy again or feel joy, or put this out of our thoughts for awhile? Why did this happen to us? What is really happening here? Are they okay? Are they alive? Have they lost their minds? Where are they? How will I survive this? Do I want to go on living or can I go on living with this incinerating loss. Did I do something wrong to cause them to go, and if so what? How can I change or heal this with them, or with myself? Can I forgive them? Can I forgive myself? What do I do at 2AM when the questions that begin with “What if….?” Come roaring into my awareness? Is this god’s punishment for something I did? On and on…these thoughts can make us feel crazy and yet they are so typical with this ambiguous loss of a person who is physically gone but still part of our lives.

These kinds of ambiguous losses are many and varied and may include children or adults sent away from their mothers, families, or their countries for reasons they don’t know or understand, including adopted children as well as kids sent to relatives or orphanages. Women who have given their babies up for adoption or sent them to live with others feel the devastating emptiness of having a child, but not.

Children feel ambiguous loss when a parent literally disappears with little or no explanation or goodbye, and does not, or cannot maintain contact, regardless of reasons: physical or mental illness, accident, alcoholism or other addictions, institutionalization. Children who suffer the death of a parent or sibling at birth or later where they were too young to understand what was happening. In these cases the parents often disappear into their own grief, so it is a double or triple abandonment for the child.

Spouses and families of people who have gone to war, are missing in action, political prisoners, victims of natural disasters, or just gone for reasons unknown suffer terribly, especially when they cannot get the truth from the powers that be. Ambiguous loss also occurs in those lost or separated from home and family, whether by their choice or not. Included here are people who are prisoners, institutionalized, on active military duty, have a physical or mental disorder that keeps them away from family under circumstance that they cannot control.

Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as well as people who are born into families where there has been a lineage of genocide or other unknown losses over many generations may end up carrying a heavy load of ambiguous grief for losses of people they never knew existed. The pain and suffering of these ancestral losses stay in the family field until they are somehow acknowledged, felt, and given a place in the family. This frequently shows up in family constellations.

Immigrants who have left their homeland and their families to go live in another country often feel ambiguous loss, not knowing when, or if, they will ever again see their families or homeland again. Likewise, those left behind feel the same unresolved grief. People go missing under various circumstances or children are kidnapped and their families don’t know if they are alive or dead. This happens to families and friends of people lost in natural and man-made disasters where the bodies are not found or not identifiable.

Sudden, unexpected or untimely deaths, including suicides, can lead to a sense of ambiguous loss. Even when the body of the deceased is present and there is no doubt about the finality, there may be so many unanswered questions, guilt, anguish, and confusion about the situation that the loss has much ambiguity and grief remains unresolved for years. We can also experience ambiguous loss when a beloved pet disappears and we wait and hope and keep looking for our sweet animal companion, not knowing if we will find them or their body, or worse, no trace at all.

In so many ways, these are the cruelest, most painful ambiguous losses in our lives because there are often no answers and no closure. Our beloveds are gone physically but very present to us psychologically and emotionally, rather like ghosts that continue to haunt us and keep our lives in limbo. The empty chair at the table, the last journals they wrote in, the bedroom that has remained the way they left it, their clothes in the closet, are constant reminders and we may not be able or want to change things or give them up for a very long time, if we ever do. We may run in all directions at once looking for answers, help, someone who knows something, or could do something, or tell us what to do because doing nothing feels impossible.

Unlike the finality of death, with these ambiguous losses of beloveds who are not dead and they are not alive with us in 3D. There are no rituals or rites of completion. What makes it even harder is that there is little or no ongoing recognition or understanding of our ongoing pain by others, even by family and close friends who know what has happened. After awhile, especially after many years of this ongoing loss, there are fewer people we can share this with and our sense of isolation grows. Others do not always realize how deep and ongoing the pain is, how much grief there is every day or on holidays or birthdays. Memories can arise at the least expected moment. Life goes on for everyone around us while those suffering with unresolved grief and living with such ambiguity are in the liminal, immobilized between past and future. Do we continue to hope for our loved one’s return or do we give up hope? What do we do when we have tried everything to make this different and there is nothing left to do?

I will offer another writing about resilience in relation to ambiguous loss.

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