What Is Ambiguous Loss and How to Cope With It? Understanding and Managing Ambiguous Loss

Dr. Serenity
April 14, 2023
Ambiguous Loss

Losing someone who is still there – What is Ambiguous Loss and how does it affect you? Learn how to cope with the challenges of ambiguous loss, whether it’s a loved one who is incarcerated, a partner who has emotionally checked out, or the impact of climate change and COVID-19.

Understanding Ambiguous Loss: Definition and Impacts

According to Pauline Boss, PhD, the pioneer who introduced the concept of ambiguous loss, it is defined as an unclear loss without any documentation of permanence. The term has gained significant traction in the field of psychology and has been researched extensively over the years.

Unlike clear-cut losses such as death, ambiguous loss does not offer the same level of validation and recognition of grief, as stated by Boss, who is an emeritus professor in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. The absence of funeral rituals, neighbors providing comfort, and formal recognition can add to the stress of the situation. This makes ambiguous loss one of the most challenging forms of loss to cope with.

Boss has devoted decades of her career to normalizing the stress associated with ambiguous loss. She has emphasized that the way individuals react to a confusing, untenable, and uncertain loss does not signify a personal inability to cope. Instead, the issue lies in the situation, not the individual trying to come to terms with it.

Several situations can qualify as ambiguous loss, including divorce or breakups, migrating to a new country, experiencing a childhood lacking adequate parenting, or facing losses of safety such as racism, transphobia, war, pandemics, etc. It also encompasses the loss of a body part or a shift in one’s physical or mental capabilities.

What Are the Categories of Ambiguous Loss?

According to Pauline Boss, PhD, the researcher who coined the term “ambiguous loss,” there are two main categories of ambiguous loss: physical absence with psychological presence and psychological absence with physical presence.

Physical absence with psychological presence occurs when there is uncertainty about whether a person is alive or dead. This can happen when a person goes missing, for example. On the other hand, psychological absence with physical presence occurs when there is a physical presence, but there is a psychological absence. This happens in situations such as when a person has dementia.

The Importance of Understanding Ambiguous Loss

Researchers have found that the concept of ambiguous loss can help social workers and therapists develop better strategies to help caregivers of people with dementia cope with the initial losses of roles, family functions, and relationships. In a special issue of the journal Family Relations that focused on ambiguous loss, Boss described these two versions of ambiguous loss as “leaving without goodbye” and “goodbye without leaving.”

However, some researchers and experts have challenged the idea that ambiguous loss should be used in all contexts. Sherry Dupuis, PhD, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and an expert in aging, has become more critical of the theory as a framework for family members of those with dementia. She argues that the theory perpetuates the stigma associated with dementia and the idea that people living with dementia lose their personhood.

Coping with Ambiguous Loss: 9 Tips to Help You Process Your Feelings

Here are nine tips to cope with ambiguous loss, according to experts. The term “ambiguous loss” refers to situations where there is uncertainty about whether a loss has occurred, or what the nature of the loss is.

  1. Validate your loss: Even if others don’t recognize your loss, it is valid, and you have the right to grieve. Simply acknowledging it as ambiguous loss can help you make sense of the situation.
  2. Don’t pathologize your reaction: It’s the situation that’s abnormal, not your response to it. So, whether you’re dealing with the loss of a relationship or a sense of safety, it’s normal to react in different ways.
  3. Don’t pathologize others’ reactions: It’s common for family members to interpret the situation differently. So, if you’re dealing with ambiguous loss, try to be understanding of others’ reactions.
  4. Practice “both/and” thinking: Instead of thinking in absolutes, try to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in your mind at once. This flexible thinking can help you tolerate uncertainty.
  5. Adapt to the loss: Depending on the type of loss, you may need to adjust your identity or roles. Be open to shifting roles to keep functioning.
  6. Spend time with others: Human connection is important, even if you just spend time with a friend or participate in a book club. However, make sure to avoid people who may say insensitive things.
  7. Seek professional help: There’s no normal grieving process, and sometimes, professional support is necessary. Speak with a therapist or call a support hotline if you’re feeling hopeless or helpless.
  8. Find hope in new things: Even if the situation itself may never change, try to find new things to feel hopeful about.
  9. Take care of yourself: Be kind to yourself and practice self-care. Focus on your mental and physical health by getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities you enjoy.
Author Dr. Serenity

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