About Ambiguous Loss:
Why we all need to understand it
Everyone experiences ambiguous loss if only from breaking up with someone, or having aging parents or kids leaving home. As we learn from the people who must cope with the more catastrophic situations of ambiguous loss, we learn how to tolerate the ambiguity in our more common losses in everyday life.
Human relationships are often traumatized by ambiguous loss, but this unique kind of loss is just beginning to be discussed in professional texts and training courses. Even veteran therapists may miss it. What I learned from experience is that I could not recognize ambiguous loss in others until I had first recognized my own. For me it was immigration, addiction, divorce, and aging parents. Other family histories may contain more catastrophic ambiguous losses through genocide, slavery, holocaust, mysterious disappearances, Alzheimer’s disease, and mental illnesses. Rife with ambiguity, losses that cannot be clarified or verified become traumatic, but they can be discussed in community with others to gain meaning and hope. As a colleague said after reflecting on his own experience, “It’s not easy, but an untenable situation can be maintained indefinitely. I can stand not knowing.”
Overall, what has become clear to me is this: Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder and not an individual pathology. With ambiguous loss, the problem comes from the outside context and not from your psyche. It follows, then, that family- and community-based interventions—as opposed to individual therapy—will be less resisted and thus more effective. It should come as no surprise that when loved ones disappear, the remaining family members yearn to stay together. They resist therapy if it means more separation. Separating family members for individual therapy may only add to the trauma of ambiguous loss.