Ambiguous Loss, Lack of Closure: Pauline Boss

Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” and invented a new field within psychology to name the reality that every loss does not hold a promise of anything like resolution. Amid this pandemic, there are so many losses — from deaths that could not be mourned, to the very structure of our days, to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers and plans and dreams…Krista Tippett, Onbeing.org

Ambiguous loss is a concept coined by (now retired) therapist Pauline Boss decades ago when she was a graduate student. Her book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief was a solid introduction. Her newest, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change, was just released in December.

As Graison Dangor reports (NPR), “People may long for closure, which psychologists define as the act or sense of completing or resolving a problem we’re suffering from… In fact, [Boss] argues, not feeling closure is actually healthy as we seek to move forward with life.”

Selected Quotes from Boss’s NPR Interview

Ambiguous loss is a situation that’s beyond human expectation. We know about death: It hurts, but we’re accustomed to loved ones dying and having a funeral and the rituals. With ambiguous loss, there are no rituals; there are no customs. Society doesn’t even acknowledge it. So the people who experience it are very isolated and alone, which makes it worse.

Many people in this world have been forced to live with it: families with missing loved ones such as soldiers missing in action or children kidnapped, as well as people with loved ones who have dementia. What I’ve learned over the years is that most of them continue living a relatively good life with the ambiguity of loss. They do that by holding two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time: My loved one is here and also gone. That way of thinking shakes us loose from thinking with certainty, you know: “You’re either dead or alive.” Well, sometimes we don’t know.

You can’t continue to hope that we’re going to go back to how our society was before the pandemic. Changes have already taken place. And they won’t go back once it’s over. You should move forward with something new to hope for.

Selected Quotes from Boss’s Books (Goodreads):

Ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent. It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place.

To regain a sense of mastery when there is ambiguity about a loved one’s absence or presence, we must give up trying to find the perfect solution. We must redefine our relationship to the missing person. Most important, we must realize that the confusion we are experiencing is attributable to the ambiguity rather than something we did – or neglected to do. Once we know the source of our helplessness, we are free to begin the coping process. We assess the situation, begin revising our perceptions…We feel more in charge even though the ambiguity persists.

Mixed emotions are compounded when a separation involves the potential of irretrievable loss. When there is a chance that we will never see a loved one again, we protect ourselves from the prospect of losing that person by becoming ambivalent– holding our spouse at arm’s length, picking a fight with a parent, or shutting a sibling out even while he or she is still physically present. Anticipating a loss, we both cling to our loved ones and push them away. We will resist their leaving and at the same time want to be finished with the goodbye.

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