Ghosting? Divorce? Losing the ability to walk after an accident? These are losses that are complex, nuanced, and still need to be grieved. The term “loss” has commonly been associated with death and grief as the sorrowful response to the death. Although the loss of a loved one can bring unimaginable pain, there are many forms of loss that don’t involve death that are also important to acknowledge. These losses can include the loss of a relationship in a breakup, loss of family system in a divorce, loss of physical function after an illness or accident, loss of one’s memory or personality to dementia, loss of a future hope after a miscarriage, and loss of what was once “normal” due to COVID. These losses are considered ambiguous losses.
Before we start defining terms, it’s important to understand why adding these broader definitions of loss is necessary for the grieving process. When losses are not as obvious or culturally recognized, you may not even be aware that you are grieving or that grief is a necessary part of your healing. Being able to recognize these different types of losses can provide you the language to identify, understand, and talk about your grief. By expanding our understanding of loss, we can be more open to and embrace a greater range of our human experiences. It can help us to be more compassionate to ourselves and others during the grief process.
Ambiguous loss defined:
What is ambiguous loss? Ambiguous loss is a “loss that remains unclear and without official verification or immediate resolution, which may never be achieved” (Boss, 2022). In other words, these losses are without resolution or closure. For example, a mother of a soldier missing in action or a husband whose wife is in coma have both experienced ambiguous losses. In both cases, both individuals have experienced a loss, but because death has not occurred, they may not know how to grieve. Others may see the grief to be premature or the loss as not credible or not yet worthy of grief. Hence, those experiencing an ambiguous loss can often experience a great deal of confusion, distress, and feelings of “stuckness.” These people experiencing ambiguous loss may feel frozen or in a limbo, uncertain of how to move forward.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Physical ambiguous loss is when the person is “physically absent but psychologically present” (Boss, 1999). Such as a single-father who places his child up for adoption. He will physically lose his son, but will continue to remember him. Another common and relevant example of this is ghosting. When someone “ghosts” you with no clear goodbye, the person left behind may not know whether to wait or move forward. Other examples include: divorce, estrangement, people missing after a natural disaster.
Psychological ambiguous loss is when a person is “physically present but psychologically absent,” in other words, “here in body, gone in the mind” (Boss, 2006). For example, an individual with clinical depression may be physically present, but to her loved ones, she may no longer be the same person she once was. Other examples include: dementia, brain injury and alcoholism.
We can experience both types of losses simultaneously. For example, a mother who becomes heavily dependent on substances after her husband disappears. In this case, the child has experienced a dual parental loss, both physical (the father who left the child physically) and psychological (the mother who left the child emotionally). The child will be affected by these losses during the events and the effects will likely also influence their development and relational patterns. There is also the father whose son has been recently incarcerated, which was soon followed by his wife’s onset of deep depression. Here, the father has lost his son physically and his wife has left him psychologically. The father may be reminded of his loss when his son is missing at the table during Thanksgiving dinner or on the daily as he experiences his wife becoming more emotionally unavailable as he painfully feels the loss of the marriage he once had.
Ambiguous loss can also happen at the personal level.
It happens when we “lose something that affects our relationship with ourselves” (Boss, 2022). This is the star high school athlete who can no longer play sports after her sports injury, the breast cancer survivor whose breasts were amputated, or the empty-nester-couple who no longer have children to focus on and who may have lost sense of their identity as a couple. These losses can come naturally as we get older and lose the capabilities we once had, and the impact of age on our changing identity can be quite disruptive. Whether physical or psychological, we are no longer who we used to be. These are all losses that require some grieving and, oftentimes, reintegrating aspects of our identity together.
Covid-19 and Ambiguous Loss
Lastly, we must mention the ambiguous losses brought upon by COVID-19. Collectively, we experienced the loss of routines, loss of plans for the future, and loss of certainty about safety and health for ourselves. Life is always unpredictable; however, the degree in which we’ve been ‘on hold’ for so many months about so many things is very fatiguing. Acknowledging this as an ambiguous loss may be one step towards reconciling these events, processing our grief, and finding our “new normal.”
Loss is an inevitable part of life, and when you are able to identify and acknowledge what you have lost, you can allow yourself the space to grieve. You also don’t have to grieve alone: Reach out to your support system for comfort or find a therapist to do this messy work with you. Therapists at Relational Psych specialize in holding this space to process your losses. We can be patient, honor the complexity, and dig into why these losses are so painful and so hard to let go of. We get it’s a process and it’s never too late or too early to start the journey.
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous Loss. Harvard University Press.
Boss, P. (2006). Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. W.W. Norton & Co.
Boss, P. (2022). The Myth of Closure Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. W.W. Norton & Company.