About Ambiguous Loss

In the 1970s, Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss. Today, the term is used in professional discourse as well as in the general public and arts communities.

Human relationships are ruptured indefinitely by ambiguous loss, causing trauma and frozen grief. While discussions of this unique kind of loss are relatively new in professional texts and training courses, the ambiguous loss model is now being applied and researched widely in the United States and internationally.

What we learn from experience is that we can't recognize ambiguous loss in others until we first recognize our own. For Dr. Boss, her ambiguous losses centered on immigration, addiction, divorce, and aging parents. You will have a different history, some of which may include more catastrophic ambiguous losses, such as war, genocide, slavery, holocaust, natural disasters, or catastrophic illnesses or head injuries. Rife with ambiguity, while such losses cannot be resolved, they can be acknowledged and supported by professionals or in community with others. As a therapist told Dr. Boss after reflecting on his own experience with ambiguous loss, "It's not easy, but an untenable situation can be maintained indefinitely. I can stand not-knowing." Indeed, we all can, when we must, for there may always be some situation of loss that remains unclear.

What we learn from research and clinical work is that ambiguous loss is a relational disorder caused by the lack of facts surrounding the loss of a loved one. It is not an individual pathology because the problem emerges from the outside context and not from the psyche. It follows then that relational interventions—such as family- and community-based interventions—will be more effective than individual therapy. When a loved one disappears, the remaining family members—especially parents and young children—want to stay together and will resist therapy if it means more separation. Furthermore, families from island cultures or more Eastern cultures tend to be community oriented and may not believe in the merits of individual psychotherapy. These are just some of the reasons that family- and community- based therapies and interventions are often the therapies of choice with 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.