When Will They Come Back? How to Cope with Ambiguous Loss

By Reaghan Beaver, MFT Intern

Ambiguous loss is a term used to describe loss that has no definitive end.

People are continuously entering and exiting our lives. I believe there is meaning and growth behind most all relationships I have had in my life. However, when people exit my life whether it be by choice or force, the space the person once took up can be left feeling empty. This is especially true with a loss of a connection that is unclear, without reason, sudden, or misunderstood. The ambiguity that comes with ambiguous loss freezes the individuals who experience it in the grief process. 

“Ambiguous loss” is a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss as a way to describe a loss that has no definitive boundary or end. Unfortunately, this is a form of loss that often goes unnoticed to people on the outside not experiencing it. Often this leads to the person or family feeling isolated and alone — taking an emotional and physical toll on the body. This form of loss was most widely experienced by individuals during the COVID 19 Pandemic where there were numerous ways our lives were upended. 

“I intentionally hold the opposing ideas of absence and presence, because I have learned that most relationships are indeed both.” 

Pauline Boss, Ph.D

Two Types of Ambiguous Loss

Physically Absent but Psychologically There 

Occurs when a person is physically absent but present in the minds and hearts of those that are missing them. The absence can either be by choice or force. A few clear-cut examples of this form of loss are soldiers missing in action, a child who has run away or been abducted, a loved one whose body has not been recovered. The absence of clarity about the ending of a relationship: ghosting, divorce, adoption, estrangement, incarceration, separation due to immigration. 

Physically Present but Emotionally Absent 

Occurs when there is physiological loss which includes mental or emotional disappearance, but the person is physically present or with you. A few examples of this form of loss are dementia, traumatic brain injuries, drug/alcohol addiction, chronic mental illness, and “workaholics”. 

What is absent 

Often loss is bookended with rituals to support an individual or family. In the case of ambiguous losses rituals like wakes, funerals, and memorials are absent — there is a lack of closure. The unclear loss can add stress to relationships because friends, family, and neighbors do not know how to help. In the wake of this ambiguity is isolation and grief. 

What is present when experiencing this loss? 

Often when experiencing ambiguous loss family members report feelings of helplessness, depression, and anxiety; relationship conflict and somatic symptoms. The negative effects occur as a result of the situation being cognitively confusing. Grief looks different for everyone, but it is common to move through The 5 Stages of Grief. People who are experiencing a loss enter and exit these stages in no order. However, with ambiguous loss, you often become stuck in one stage. Known as frozen grief or the “grief limbo”.   

A black silhouette of two heads with lines in their brain

How to Combat Life’s Ambiguous Losses 

If you recognize this form of loss in your life and you are struggling trying to overcome it — I can help you. For the moment, be vulnerable with yourself and put a name to what you are experiencing. Research shows that labeling what you are experiencing can help you understand it and externalize it. In addition, creating a support system around you can help you move forward in your grief. Together we will assess where you are, work towards acceptance, and create goals to move forward and rewrite the ending. 

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