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Ambiguous Loss

February 22, 2014

Funerals have long been part of cultures. While the rituals vary, there seems to be universal understanding that we need to acknowledge the death of people we love, that grief is a natural, necessary part of life for the living. This makes sense to us because death is a universal experience; no one escapes it.

Not so with ambiguous loss. Ambiguous losses –which I’ll define in a moment –are not universal. Ambiguous losses, we’d like to believe, are things that happen to other people. Things that the honest, upstanding, law-abiding, well-intended, (fill in your preferred adjective) -people are generally protected from. After all, what are all those laws and social contracts, those Sunday School lessons, pre-marital counselling sessions, parenting classes, adoption training and Biblical counseling seminars about? Are not we trying to do it right? Prevent some of the painful things we’ve heard are visited upon those who are less well-prepared?

And for those of us who believe in God and rely upon His Word, do not we undertake the work He gives our hands to do –ministry, work, marriage, parenting, adoption –with FAITH? Don’t we interpret the host of resources and trainings available to us as part of the light God sheds on the path He has chosen for us, part of the equipping He intends for the tasks He has ordained?

Throughout my adult Christian life, the churches I have been privileged to be a part of have each unambiguously answered, YES. I do not disagree.

But I do, now, disagree, with the unspoken implication that if we do it right, we will spare ourselves from suffering. Most of us have never heard that preached outright from a pulpit and if we did, we would repudiate it. We know we do not control our destiny, God does. He lays out a glorious path for His children that includes suffering and weakness and groaning and separation and longing and tribulation and distress and persecution and ultimately leads to Glory. (Romans 8:18-39)

But recently, walking along side Christian friends who are suffering under the weight of ambiguous loss, and finding it familiar territory, I see it is a message we in the body often preach to each other: you have brought this upon yourself; you have left undone things you ought to have done, things you must fix if wish to stop suffering.  I understand because the same unbelief in sovereign suffering, the same desire to see the impediments yield to the tools in my kit, the same hope  for miraculous healing –kept me confused and in denial for years.

Death brings obvious loss. We know to expect a grief cycle that will end.

But ambiguous loss is just that –ambiguous. Baffling because it may go on indefinitely. For the children of God, ambiguous loss falls under the theological umbrella of God’s sovereignty. But how do we train bothers and sisters in suffering, much less in suffering well –in running an endurance race –when many of us, not having suffered this way ourselves and fearing it, are inclined to counsel them to escape?


What is ambiguous loss?

Pauline Boss pioneered the theory of ambiguous loss in human relationships, recognizing that when we love someone, when we’ve developed an attachment to them, there are forms of loss that can be more devastating than outright death. Typically, physical death can be verified, certified, a body buried, a life mourned and celebrated. In ambiguous loss the loved one simply disappears and there is no certainty she will come back, or if she does, that life will return to the way it used to be.

The first type of ambiguous loss is the physical absence, but psychological presence of a loved one. Such losses arise when soldiers are missing in action, when children are kidnapped or disappear, and when missing people are presumed dead in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But headline-grabbing circumstances don’t always precipitate this type of ambiguous loss. People we love can also be physically absent, yet present in mind and heart subsequent to events like divorce, immigration, incarceration, institutionalization and adoption  (placement, disruption and residential treatment among other things).

The general principle is: the more ordinary  or imperceptible the circumstances, the less likely outsiders are to see and understand the lingering ambiguity of the loss. Outsiders may recognize the crisis that results in the person’s initial disappearance, but with time, adjust to the new normal of the absence and generally stop noticing the person isn’t there. While for the family, living intimately with the ongoing trauma of the loss, the crisis lives on. The less outside validation and support the family receives, the higher the likelihood they will become frozen in a dysfunctional, traumatic level of grief that will affect their ability to cope with the circumstances at hand and move beyond them.

That’s what makes the second type of ambiguous loss, the physical presence but psychological absence of a loved one, even more difficult to deal with: outsiders often can’t see it at all. The paradox is captured in this variation on an old English rhyme:


The missing-yet-present loved one may have suffered a brain injury, or live with autism, have early onset dementia, or struggle with depression or PTSD, or a personality or attachment disorder or plain old spiritual blindness and sin. Whatever the cause(s), it is disconcerting to live and to interact daily with a person who is physically present and may even be capable of functioning to a degree in the outside world, but who interpersonally vacillates somewhere between “disengaged” and “draining.”

Mearns’s gut reaction: to wish the man on the stair who wasn’t there would go away.

These losses are ambiguous because in the early stages they are often invisible to people outside the family; they most significantly impact the relationships closest to the person who is psychologically disappearing. In fact, when the brain is involved, denial and passing (working harder to project normalcy) are common as long as those facades can be maintained. Generally, unless/until those coping skills begin to slip, outsiders want to maintain their belief nothing is really wrong.

That makes the creeping loss doubly ambiguous for those closest to the disappearing person, who may begin to lose their own stability in the crazy-making that ensues. With denial in play both from the disappearing person, and the would-be helpers discomfited by the call for help (if there is no problem, there is no need to intervene) the family member who perceives the loss first –the person who reaches out for help –is often identified as the person with the psychological/emotional/spiritual problem. After all, he or she is the one insisting there is a man on the stair who isn’t there. That cycle is the subject of another post.

For now, it is important to know that we do this to each other not because we are uncaring people, but because we don’t understand ambiguous loss. That basic lack of understanding, and the more essential need to embrace ambiguous loss under a paradigm of Biblical suffering,  are things we can fix.

This is how Boss, who is a secular theorist, observes the process of ambiguous loss:

“Perceiving loved ones as present when they are physically absent or perceiving them as gone when they are physically present, can make people feel helpless and thus more prone to depression, anxiety, and relationship conflicts. How does ambiguous loss do this? First, because the loss is confusing, people are baffled and immobilized. They don’t know how to make sense of the situation. They can’t problem-solve because they don’t know whether the problem (the loss) is final or temporary. If the uncertainty continues, families often respond with absolutes, either acting as if the person is completely gone, or denying anything has changed. Neither is satisfactory.

Second, the uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationship with the loved one, so that the couple or family relationship freezes in place. If they have not already closed out the person who is missing physically or psychologically, they hang on to the hope that things will return to the way they used to be. Third, people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss –such as a funeral after a death in the family. Few if any rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss. Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.

Fourth, the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just; consequently, those who witness it tend to withdraw rather than give neighborly support, as they would do in the case of a death in the family. Finally, because ambiguous loss is a loss that goes on and on, those who experience it tell me they become physically and emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty.” Pauline Boss Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief Harvard University Press, 1999, 7-8.

That’s why it seems so critical to learn about ambiguous loss. People all around us are struggling with these things and we rarely encounter them in counseling situations in the church before they reach a secondary crisis point: emotionally exhausted, anxious, depressed.

Should we not be coming along side them sooner? Jesus did not operate on an “Emergency Cases Only” model. He said,

“Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29

Copyright Carrie Reber Zeman 2014. All rights reserved.

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