I decided to write about Ambiguous Loss because I’ve had to manage it. It’s more painful than any other situation I’ve been faced with. (I certainly hope I don’t experience anything worse.) And to top it off, it’s happened to me more than once. The second time was no less excruciating than the first. Both times I managed to pull through. But I have to tell ya, I wasn’t sure I would.
Let me explain what it is and how it’s presented itself in my life. We all understand the loss of someone we love. When there is a death, we feel tremendous loss and sadness. There is acknowledgment from family, friends and other loved ones. There is usually a ceremony/funeral to commemorate the lost one’s importance in our lives. The grief process begins.
In an ambiguous loss an uncertainty exists. A loved one is physically absent from your life but has not died. Such as would occur in adoption, divorce, immigrants, prisoner of war, or kidnappings. Another form of ambiguous loss is that the person is physically present but psychologically absent as in mental illness, drug addiction, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease.
This ambiguous kind of loss is ongoing. Uncertain. Confusing. People feel helpless and become susceptible to depression, anxiety and relationship conflicts. The grieving person cannot determine if the loss is permanent or temporary and this creates an unsolveable situation. If the situation continues the person will begin to think in absolutes.. that the loss is permanent or they will deny it exists. They will either close out the person who is missing or hang onto hope that the situation will return to what it was.
Unfortunately there is no clear-cut response for ambiguous losses as there are in a death. Friends, neighbors do not recognize the loss and do not come forth with support. People are reminded that life is not clear-cut and they respond by withdrawing. Further isolating the grieving person. And because these losses go on and on, the grieving person becomes physically and emotionally exhausted from the ongoing uncertainty.
Psychologist Pauline Boss has researched and worked with people experiencing ambiguous loss since 1975. She was raised in southern Wisconsin, studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then moved to the University of Minnesota where she taught. She has continued in private practice and has published her works on the topic. I first read her book, “Ambiguous Loss : Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief” a few years ago. I found much relief, understanding and compassion in her words.
I recently found myself in another ambiguous situation and reopened her book again in search of the same relief. Fortunately for me, the relief was still there between the pages of her research. My situation has not yet resolved itself. I’m still working to manage it within the bounds of my current life. Had I seen this situation coming I most certainly would have avoided it. But what I’ve learned from it is that life and love are not clear-cut. There are no guarantees. Life is messy.
I have mixed feelings. Not just from day-to-day, but from moment to moment. I vacillate from clinging to letting go in a matter of minutes. From hopeless to hopeful. What I’m certain about is that I want the waiting to end. I want the uncertainty to stop. I want to know where to put my foot down when I take my next step.
I experienced these things during the period of my life when I was a foster/adoptive parent. Children coming and going. Holding on and letting go. It was most apparent during the pre-adoptive months. Social workers making promises to bo the birth mother and to me. Even the promises were conflicting. I questioned myself constantly, do I let myself bond deeply with this child or do I prepare to let go? It was a very harrowing time in my life. There was no definite ending. One court date to the next. Hoping for resolution one way or another. Frozen in limbo. Until someone else decided. Until life decided. There was no moving on.
In the case of the adoption, this beautiful baby was physically present. I fed and diapered and nurtured and loved him. I was told when he was three months old that he would be adoptable. I prepared, becoming licenced to adopt. Then the situation changed and the parents were given more time. They wanted to resolve their life situation. Then a few weeks later, the situation would change again. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth pulling my heart-strings along with it. It would be 19 months more before the outcome became final. My son is 9 years old now. And the struggle, the confusion and the excruciating pain I endured was worth it. Every parent would endure it for any of their children. But to endure it without knowing the outcome…. some people told me they wouldn’t have done it. But I did.
Now I find myself on the opposite side of the ambiguous situation. This time the person is not physically present in my life much of the time. But the love is there. The love is the definite. Everything else is ambiguous. How long will it be uncertain? Should I leave or stay? Is the wait worth it? It’s difficult to give up hope.
Dr, Boss explains, “Absolute thinking carries a high price. At either end of the spectrum – closing someone out too soon or acting as if nothing has changed – denial ultimately causes more rather than less distress.” “It invalidates and separates.” “It is the combination of optimism and realistic thinking that allows people to move ahead in spite of ambiguous loss, but first they need understanding and support.”
What am I supposed to do? Well figuring that out has been so complicated. Dr. Boss states, “Once they understand why they are stick, and that it’s not their fault, they are often more willing to change.” “Continuous restructuring is essential to function and survive over time.” “Experiencing ambiguous loss, people need to communicate with one another about their loss, but they also need to rest – even to escape – now and then in order to tolerate long-term ambiguous loss. Respite is essential and no one should feel guilty for taking it.”
I don’t know how or when my current ambiguous loss will resolve. I just know that I’m going to be okay no matter what the outcome should be. I love and I am loved. That’s where I find my hope and my strength.