It happens when a loved one is missing in a hurricane. It happens when a husband with Alzheimer’s doesn’t remember the day he married his partner. It happens when a child can’t get the attention of a depressed parent. An unnamable uncertainty creeps up in us. Family therapist Dr. Pauline Boss coined a term for this developing psychological area of study known as ambiguous loss. She has shown up on the forefront of many national disasters around the world to help individuals name and find meaning amongst the unknown. As we look to the families suffering in the devastating hurricanes and within our private journeys, Boss’s framework may indeed give us wisdom and a way forward.         

Ambiguous Loss

Boss argues, “Absence and presence are not absolutes.” In other words, human relationships are complex in the way family members can be both there and not there. The people that we love can go missing physically in dramatic ways such as in natural disasters and wars, but they can also go missing psychologically in incremental and various ways. Boss argues that ambiguous loss, while a new terminology, is far from a new phenomenon and nearly ubiquitous in human experience. She explains two distinct ways that ambiguous loss shows up in our relationships.

The first type of ambiguous loss occurs when a loved one is absent physically, but psychologically and emotionally present to the family. Examples of this include situations such as:  

The second type of ambiguous loss describes the inverse, where a loved one is physically present, but psychologically and emotionally absent to the family. Examples of this include situations such as:

If we listen to the latent questions that come with these examples we might hear: What happened to this person? Will the person return? If so, will they disappear again? Who will this person be from day to day? Because of the unanswerable questions, ambiguous loss can freeze or complicate our grief. What’s important to note is that the complexity of the situations themselves make for a complexity in the way we grieve. Boss emphasizes that both types of ambiguous loss come from a circumstance outside of the person and not from individual pathology.  

Resilience & Ritual

Ambiguous loss defies and thwarts any instincts to resolve, fix, or cure. This can be especially difficult in the Western American culture so defined by mastery and solving problems. Instead, our ambiguous loss calls us to resilience and healing in the midst of our suffering. Often, we can wrongly imagine resilience as an invulnerable feat of “bouncing back” in a linear fashion. We were hurt, and then we return to the previous state having not been affected. Rather, resilience is an adaptive trait that allows us to integrate our losses and learn to live well with them in the ongoing cycles of non-linear grief. What Boss understands is that our ability to live with ambiguity is a formative element of our resilience.

In the case of a literal death, the finitude cues social, cultural, and religious rituals. Food, clothing, communal gatherings, singing and story, etc. are instruments that help us recognize and honor the loss of a life. A literal death may also contextualize us in our communal relationships, possibly prompting support and recognition of the loss. By contrast, ambiguous loss is accompanied by an ambiguity around if and how to acknowledge and grieve the losses. Acting as though the person is totally gone, or acting as though nothing has changed are both deeply unsatisfying. The truth of the situation lies in the non-binary middle space between absence and presence. It is often in the midst of this middle space that we both crave and lack rituals and liturgies to lament well and find meaning.    

To grieve is to participate in our own healing. In fact, many theological and social thinkers such as Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Soong-Chan Rah* hinge hope and healing to our capacity to lament. They understand that lament allows suffering to speak rather than explaining it away. In the case of ambiguous loss, Boss reminds us that it often takes leaders and healers to offer an invitation to creative rituals, symbols, and expressions that help people grieve the accumulation of ambiguous losses along the way.

The Seattle School trains us to inhabit pastoral, therapeutic and culture-shaping roles. So, my questions for us are these:

Resources for Further Reading:

*We are pleased to welcome Reverend Dr. Soong-Chan Rah as this year’s Stanley Grenz Lecture Series keynote speaker. Dr. Rah will open the series on Tuesday morning, November 6 with a lecture entitled “The Necessity of Lament in a Broken World” and close in the evening with a dialogue engaging “White Supremacy, Racialized Trauma, and the Need for a Redemptive Mediating Narrative.” We invite you to join us for this annual, free event honoring the legacy of Dr. Stanley Grenz and our ongoing commitment to the intersection of theology and culture.

Visit our calendar to learn more and RSVP.