What is ambiguous loss? How to handle grief that can't end

In an age when people need clear answers for everything, dealing with unclear trauma can be especially tricky

Nicola Chan |

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Grief can be one of the most complicated emotions to deal with - especially when the loss is more ambiguous.

From childhood, we are taught how to solve problems – first in school, then at work. The quicker, the better. It’s as if there is a clear answer to everything.

This worries Dr Pauline Boss, who believes the new generation – born in the age of Google – may struggle more than ever to cope with life’s unanswered questions.

Growing up in a Swiss-American immigrant family and community, the now 85-year-old professor noticed as a child that her immigrant father – who lacked the means to return to Switzerland – seemed to pine for a home somewhere else.

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That term is “ambiguous loss”. It refers to the trauma of a loss that “remains unclear” to the person suffering it, and in which there is “no possibility of resolution.”

Boss divides ambiguous loss into two types: physical and psychological. The former refers to the loss felt after someone goes missing, perhaps due to a natural disaster or for political reasons, and their fate remains unclear. The latter refers to the feeling of loss we experience when someone’s mind or memory is lost or altered – despite them still being physically present – perhaps due to old age, a mental disorder, or just being busy. 

When Boss meets new clients, she begins by helping them understand what they are going through. “I tell them ‘what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. It is the most difficult loss because there is no possibility of resolution, at least for a long time.”

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Since the loss is unresolved, the grief, too, remains ongoing. “[Sufferers] can’t admit they’ve lost someone because they don’t have any proof,” Boss tells Young Post. Stuck with a “frozen grief” that cannot be processed, they often have trouble letting go and moving on. 

“These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation,” Boss reassures. 

Comforting someone who’s experiencing ambiguous loss can be tricky. A simple but important step is to express your sorrow. “All you need to say is ‘I’m sorry your loved one is ambiguously lost, that your loved one is here but not here, or your loved one is missing,” Boss says. People suffering from ambiguous loss are likely to blame themselves for the situation. This, says Boss, is when you should reassure them and say “it’s not your fault”.

It's important to express your sorrow when you're upset, rather than bottling it up.
Photo: Shutterstock

Seeing a friend or a relative suffer, particularly for a long period of time, can make us feel helpless. While it is human nature to want to offer consolation or advice, we should never make absolute assumptions about a person’s loss, such as saying that a missing relative will come back someday, or that they are probably dead. 

“Whether you say one thing or the other ... both are cruel and untrue,” says Boss. A  more gentle approach is to help the sufferer acknowledge the truth by encouraging a “both/and” way of thinking, so that they can tell themselves their lost ones might – and might not – return. “That way of thinking is useful in reducing the stress of [sufferers].” 

In addition to the support of family and friends, most people experiencing ambiguous loss need some professional guidance, too. Boss recommends group therapy classes to encourage community support, especially for those experiencing a collective loss, such as through natural disaster, or a common type of loss such as one caused by mental illness.

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Connecting people who are experiencing the same kind of ambiguous loss can help them feel less lonely and more understood.

“They can help each other find new hope in their life, and live a life without that missing person”, Boss says, adding that isolation usually makes it harder for people to adapt. 

We can also become more resilient in the face of ambiguous loss by teaching ourselves to be more open to change or the unknown. 

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“Hike a new trail without a map. Start a new hobby, or take a risk. This will help you get used to doing something different,” Boss advises. “If we keep doing the same thing all the time, we become rigid.”

In an era where we are driven by a belief in the power of information, it can be hard to exist in a state of not knowing. 

“While we love finding answers to questions, we shouldn’t apply that approach to human relationships… you can’t just cut off an attachment,” Boss says. “We need to have more compassion for people with an ambiguous loss – and for ourselves.”