Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief
A compassionate exploration of the effects of ambiguous loss and how those experiencing it handle this most devastating of losses. Family therapist and researcher Boss (Univ. of Minnesota) has studied ambiguous loss in the families of pilots declared missing in action in Vietnam and Cambodia, in midlife couples whose adolescent children have recently left home, and in families where one member has Alzheimer's. This latter group includes Native American women of the Ashinabe tribe in northern Minnesota. The author divides ambiguous loss into two basic types: first, where someone is perceived as physically absent but psychologically present, e.g., men declared missing in action who are not known to be alive or dead; second, where someone is perceived to be psychologically absent but physically present, e.g., a spouse with dementia or other mental illness. Situations that can create a feeling of ambiguous loss also include such common phenomena as immigration or a move, adoption, divorce, and the workaholism of a partner. Boss finds that the uncertainty of such situations can easily lead to depression, anxiety, and family conflict. Using personal narratives of those she has worked with, she reports how those experiencing ambiguous loss often struggle to control an unclear situation by searching for absolutes, either denying that anything has changed or, alternatively, acting as though the loved one is completely gone. Among the Ashinabe women, however, she found a spiritual acceptance of ambiguity, indicating that a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty seems to be related to cultural values and spiritual beliefs. As a family therapist, Bosss own approach is to encourage families to talk together, to reach a consensus about how to mourn that which has been lost and how to celebrate that which remains. Her simple stories of families doing just that contain lessons for all. Insightful, practical, and refreshingly free of psychobabble.