Grief and loss are part of life, but how we recognize and experience loss and how we work with grief can vary differently depending on our cultures, belief systems, the type of loss, and more. Many of us recognize loss only as something concrete, the death of a mother, a father, a child, and so on. These losses are concrete losses where we know what happened and what is lost. In general, we view loss as a finality, something with a conclusion and clarity. Ambiguous loss differs from this as it is defined as loss without finality, without clarity, a loss with ambiguity. Sometimes, ambiguous loss can be hard to understand because there is no actual recognition that a loss has occurred. Ambiguous loss can be a range of things, a missing person, a lost ability, a parent or person with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia-physically present but less so psychologically, a child born with a developmental disability, a miscarriage, etc., In each of these scenarios, an expected outcome changes, but life goes on, and those who experience the ambiguous loss are left searching for clarity and are left with uncertainty. We have all experienced ambiguous loss to differing degrees. Ambiguous loss was first defined by Pauline Boss in the late 1970’s and she continues her pioneering work in this area to this day. Ambiguous loss can be something that is hard to recognize, but recognizing where we have experienced it, and what we can do with it, is essential.
One area we have all experienced ambiguous loss is around the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent societal changes we have seen and experienced. We all experienced changes, and a loss of what we considered normal or typical in our lives and the losses included the very concrete losses of people, family members, loss of income, time, and more ambiguous losses like changes in relationships and what we expect from others. We are left in a state of uncertainty around much of this ambiguous loss and how to work with it, what to do. Pauline Boss describes change as being essential in dealing with ambiguous loss. Change is possible when we recognize what has happened and what we are dealing with. Realizing that we have all lost different things during this pandemic, and outside of it, can open the door to allow us to make intentional change in regards to how we grieve and continue to progress in life. These changes lead to a modification of expectations, of identity, of how we live our lives and our view our realities. Allowing ourselves to grieve, adjust our expectations, and find meaning, are just a few of the important tenants of working with and recognizing ambiguous loss.
Allowing ourselves to look at what has changed, and feel what we are grieving, can be difficult, but allowing ourselves to do this also creates resiliency and an increased ability to work with stressful, traumatic, and uncertain situations. Boss describes resiliency as key in working with loss, and especially ambiguous loss. Boss additionally describes six important focuses when working with ambiguous loss.
Finding meaning, we need to make meaning out of the losses, even when it doesn’t seem like that’s possible, even when we don’t have finality or clarity.
Adjusting Mastery, recognizing that we cannot always have mastery, meaning that we may still have unknowns and unanswered questions, especially with ambiguous loss, and beginning to be okay with this uncertainty.
Reconstructing Identity, we change our identity after our losses, we adapt so that we can are not frozen and can continue to progress in our lives and lived experiences.
Normalizing Ambivalence, ambivalence, having mixed and conflicting opinions and thoughts is not only normal, but expected when working with loss, especially ambiguous loss. Increasing tolerance for ambiguity decreases how stressful and negatively impactful these situations and experiences can be, and overall increases our ability to work with ambivalence and ambiguous loss, increasing resilience.
Revising Attachment, shifting our attachment, intentionally, even when we don’t have a concrete loss, or clarity about what we are really losing.
Discovering New Hope, finding a new way to find hope, sometimes with ambivalence as well.
When experiencing and working with ambiguous loss, change is imperative and essential in being successful and moving forward. Change will always be difficult, but important. For more information on the above information, and much more, please read Pauline Boss’ seminal works including:
Visit this blog post for additional tips to help you move through grief and loss.
The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).
Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss
Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss
The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a time of Pandemic and Change
These and other resources and books can be found here