What is an ambiguous loss?
An ambiguous loss is defined as “a loss that is unclear” and for this reason the loss leads to grief that has no end or closure. The ambiguity arises from the lack of certainty about the presence or absence of a person and from the anxiety resulting from the consequent constant search for consistency. This term applies to situations in which a family member may disappear out of the desire to break with the past, or because he/she is the victim of a crime. But it also applies to a family member who is lost, even though he/she is still present in some way. An example is when a loved one has dementia: You know you have lost your loved one even though he/she is standing right in front of you.
What is the ambiguous loss theory?
Premise of the ambiguous loss theory is that uncertainty or a lack of information about the where-abouts or status of a loved one as absent or present, as dead or alive, is traumatizing for most individuals, couples, and families.
How many types of ambiguous loss are there?
Pauline Boss identifies two types of losses:
- The physical loss of a person who remains psychologically present;
- The psychological loss of a person who remains physically present.
The physical loss of a person who remains psychologically present affects families who experience disappearances, immigration, incarceration, separation, divorce, adoption, gender transitions, ghosting.
The psychological loss of a person who remains physically present affects families with relatives suffering from pervasive developmental disorders such as autism, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders such as depression, use disorders of substances and alcohol, chronic acquired diseases such as cerebral palsy, patients suffering from severe head trauma.
Are there other factors that affect ambiguous losses?
Yes. Initially, the theory concerned the inconsistency and uncertainty between the presence and absence of a loved one. But in recent interviews Pauline Boss has added other losses which by nature cannot be clarified, cured or repaired. An ambiguous loss can involve an individual’s relationship with self. That is, each of us has a relationship with our body and with our mind. If a person loses a limb, for example, he/she experiences an ambiguous loss in relation to his/her body. Those who begin to lose their memory, and often people know they are slipping away, are experiencing an ambiguous loss in relation to their own mind.
What is a common symptom of ambiguous loss?
Feeling sad about an event or situation and not knowing why. Ambiguity can generate a sense of helplessness and propensity to depression, anxiety and relational conflicts: the ambiguity that characterizes an unclear loss makes one unable to make decisions. Cognitively blocked, many react irrationally and behave as if the relative has already died, or vice versa denying the existence of the disease itself, interacting with the person in a sort of play, as if the problem does not exist. Ambiguity inhibits the reorganization of roles, of family rules: everyone remains in a stalemate. Without an indicator of loss validated by rites, traditions, or customs, suffering remains “indeterminate” and little recognized outside. Pauline Boss writes: “You find yourself alone in a limbo that too often goes unnoticed (or denied) by the wider community.”
Is divorce an ambiguous loss?
With divorce grief, it may look and feel different, because the other person is still alive but the relationship has ended. This can actually make processing feelings and finding new meaning even more complicated than with grief after a death, because it’s a more ambiguous and less straightforward loss.
What is the impact of ambiguous loss on children?
Children experiencing an ambiguous loss may feel unsure of their future, may not be able to conceptualize the loss, or may feel isolated and alone. These complex emotions may hinder or even block the child’s ability to move through grief.
If you need help finding new hope in the midst of unending pain, we can help you give a name to what you are experiencing and build resilience to live with a loss that has no closure.