Ambiguous Loss

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

– Pauline Boss, Ph.D.

In the last 50 years, our understanding of the spectrum that grief encompasses has grown immensely. Yet, grief is still wildly misunderstood and unrecognized in our culture. For some, we grant specific labels to identify their grief in a concrete way: a widow, bereaved parent, or a sibling of a fallen soldier. Almost always, these labels tell us that someone’s grief is valid because they are grieving the death of a loved one. These labels tell us: “her husband died, you are free to bring a casserole to her door,” or “his sister died in the war, you may write on his Facebook wall that you are thinking about him on Memorial Day.” We know what to do with concrete loss. We know the social rules and instructions that come with each label that we have attached to concrete grievers. But for many, loss and grief reaches beyond the concrete labels; beyond the dead; beyond a final resolution. This type of grief is now known as “ambiguous loss.” This type of loss carries great unknowns and no societal instructions in how to react. I was first hit with ambiguous loss when we had to hand back the baby girl who was literally minutes away from being our legally adopted daughter. Not only did we have a failed adoption, but she went to a family member that knowingly abused her and did not support any continued relationship with our family.  This little one will have no memory of being a part of our family, even though (in our eyes) she is nothing short of being our first daughter – the one who turned me into a mother and my husband into a father. Suddenly, my husband and I were caught in the thick of grieving our child who was still living. We grieved her future, tucked away her nursery, told our parents that they were no longer grandparents, and were completely heartbroken. We mourned the loss of a future with the daughter we would never see again. But, she is still alive. There was no funeral, memorial, title, or label that told others how they could react.  The first thing I did was turn to my community to look for support groups. But of course, there are no support groups for “childless parents with living children.” When people asked me if I had any children the answer “not yet!” seemed fake; it seemed to deny our baby girl’s existence. But the answer “yes,” did not work either. Yet, no one cutting your hair or chatting at the farmers’ market wants a detailed story of how your daughter is no longer your daughter. Not having anywhere to turn for support became extremely isolating. It made me feel as though my loss must not be real and that I needed to simply “be grateful” it was just a failed adoption, rather than something worse.  This kind of thinking took my mourning to a level of isolated depression. It was not until I started seeing a grief counselor that she explained to me there are many different types of losses. She introduced to me the term “ambiguous loss,” which is “grief without a resolution or without a death” (Boss, 2020). From there, I learned that there has actually been great amounts of research on the stinging pain of ambiguous loss. She shared with me that while we like “black and white” losses in our culture, most loss is ambiguous. When I began opening my world up to honoring all types of loss, no matter how unresolved my loss still was, I was able to truly begin healing.  So what do we call the loss of a father who is mourning his brain dead child that is still right in front of him? How do we honor the grief of the refugee in our neighborhood who does not know if their family members are still alive? At what point do we reach out to the mother of a child on death row? How do we recognize the loss of our friend whose parents are alive, but are lost deep within in the affects of dementia? Are we supposed to give flowers to the childless neighbor who has suffered 8 miscarriages? The way we recognize and make room for grief in our culture either helps heal or further traumatizes those who are suffering from ambiguous loss.  Psychologist Abby Maslin shares that “ambiguous loss is learning to live with a lot of uncertainty, never knowing if you will get an end result” (“Grieving the Living,” 2020). Because of this uncertainty, Dr. Boss explains that this type of loss often “erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place” (Boss, 2020). Most people facing this kind of loss have faced the “well, at least the person you love is…” comments. This kind of attitude only further isolates the ambiguous griever.  Those who are suffering from ambiguous loss still work through the same grief cycle as someone who is suffering from concrete loss (“Ambiguous Grief,” 2020). Today, research suggests that the methods we use to remember the dead can be used in the same ways to honor ambiguous loss (Hugstad, 2017). Experts also share that “remembering [that] the present does not override the past” is a powerful way to honor what is missing in ambiguous grieving (“Ambiguous Grief,” 2020). While it is our immediate desire to make someone else’s loss concrete, we must understand that this is simply impossible with unresolved grief. Dr. Boss explains that “while such losses cannot be resolved, they can be acknowledged and supported” by professionals, family members, friends, and communities (Boss, 2020). When we make room for these types of losses we are offering our permission to connect with another’s pain rather than push them further into the darkness. Light and healing cannot enter where there is no room.  So how about we bring the casseroles, drop off the flowers, and bake the cookies for those that we see with unresolved grief? Will you look your ambiguously-grieving friend in the eyes and say “no matter how messy your pain is today, I am here for you?” How will you decide to recognize that all grief looks different even if there is painfully no resolution in sight? Will you wait for a concrete label to tell you how to support the grieving or will you pave your own path to honor whatever loss comes your way? One thing is certain when it comes to ambiguous losses: they are not going anywhere. Because of this, it is up to us to make room for this type of unique, yet common grief. Only then can true healing begin.  Sources:
  • Ambiguous grief: Grieving someone who is still alive. (2020). Retrieved from
  • Boss, P. (2020). About Ambiguous Loss. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from
  • Grieving The Loss Of A Person Still Living. (2020). Retrieved from
  • Hugstad, K. (2017, November 30). Grieving the living: When your “lost” loved one is still alive. Retrieved from
  • This is a photo of a painting that my dear friend made to honor the daughter is no longer “ours.” It was such an amazing feeling to have this loss recognized and to have this to keep forever!  

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