There are two kinds of losses in this life: clear loss, such as the death of a loved one where there is a body, and ambiguous loss, where the person is there – but not there.
Examples of ambiguous loss can be divorce, mental illness, dementia, addiction, immigration or aging parents. How individuals deal with these community losses becomes an essential part of the family blueprint.
When a loved one dies we mourn our loss. We take comfort in the rituals that mark the passing, and we turn to those around us for support.
But what happens when there is no closure? When a family member or a friend who may still be alive goes radio silent and stops all communication? They are lost to us, and we have no reason why or a future ending in sight.
Pauline Boss, Emeritus Professor at the University of Minnesota, explains in her book Ambiguous Loss that those who have lost family members to divorce, immigration, adoption, addiction or chronic mental illness fluctuate between hope and hopelessness.
Human relationships are often traumatized because of the ambiguity. There are no clearly outlined five stages of grief to ‘finish’ the process when there is no body to bury. The sorrow becomes chronic and makes it more difficult to resolve and move on.
The challenge is how to regain our psychological footing, create new meaning and live satisfactorily with unanswered questions.
Divorce is an ambiguous loss that affects many of us. You are leaving someone. You have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here.
You have been barred from seeing your grandchildren when your son’s ex got custody. So they’re here, but not here. They are present and absent at the same time – especially in a co-parenting situation. It is haunting.
When avoidance becomes an avenue of unexpressed anger, then the dark side comes out. Hostile silence is a form of violence and verbal abuse. Teens use it as a method of bullying, exes use it to get back at each other, and adults use it as the ultimate silent treatment. Ah, the crystal ball begins to clear.
Extended grieving ends up looking like what psychiatrists now call ‘complicated grief’ that is long term and chronic. It is incremental death. Both here and gone.
It is what parents experience when their adult children go emotionally – and sometimes physically – missing, and they lose touch with grandchildren. It may be punctuated by jabs of blame or never-ending silent treatment. It feels like punishment. There is no closure to be found.
It is this ambiguous loss that keeps people stuck in grief and unable to find resolution so they can move on and rebuild a life they love.
Not talking is still communicating. What it says is that they do not even think you are worth the time or effort to have an honest conversation with. It is painful. It is dehumanizing. Don’t be duped into wondering and wasting energy trying to figure out what you did wrong.
What you’re experiencing is ambiguous loss because your loved ones are still missing. It is the most difficult, most stressful loss there is, but it is not your fault.
In 1969 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross found the five stages of grief to be relevant to people who are dying, fading into death. They are not helpful to someone who’s at the loss end of that death.
We like linear stages because they provide an ending. Each stage has a finite end point when you’re done. You’re no longer grieving.
There is no such thing as closure with ambiguous loss. After any traumatic event – even a hurricane, most people blame themselves. We have to live with it and find a new normal.
Ambiguous loss is meaningless. We will never have all the answers to why it occurred. The life task before us is, first, to differentiate between depression and sadness, and then to create new meaning and a go-forward plan.
Sorrow is a normal reaction to the loss of any dream. The closer the dream is to your heart, the greater the sadness whether that dream was the ‘happily ever after’ of a marriage unfulfilled or the dream of close family ties that span generations.
Women I have met and worked with are not depressed; they’re sad. They’re grieving. And this should be normalized.
The transformation occurs when you no longer blame yourself and can assign it a meaning that you can live with the rest of your life without too much stress.
You may never understand the ‘why’ of what happened, but you can find meaning elsewhere in your life. There may never be a perfect answer because life doesn’t always deliver closure. Sometimes we must learn to live with unanswered questions and move on.
The search for meaning is life giving. What does a grandmother do with a surplus of love, time and resources?
We live with wounds and occasionally life gives us the opportunity to serve. I was able to do that by finding something else that was meaningful through volunteering as a Big Sister and sharing with those who want what I have to offer, rather than chasing after those who don’t.
Who or what have you found to invest yourself in that fulfills you? What words of wisdom would you share with your sisters who may be experiencing ambiguous loss? Please join the conversation below!