What Is Ambiguous Loss, And Why It Matters

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

I know the exact day my husband died of brain cancer—February 3, 2018. I know the exact time—9:37 p.m. I can tell you every detail of the moment when it happened, of the moments before, and of the many horrible moments that came after.

It would seem that my loss is not indefinite or uncertain. There is a time and a date to which I can look and point and say, that’s when it happened, that’s when I lost him. My loss is finite, and yet also not.

On the day of his funeral, I remember looking at him and thinking, that’s not him. Because of grief and denial, yes, but also because brain cancer had stripped my husband of his smile and humor and personality long before the funeral, and I had lost him so much earlier than February 3rd. The man I married so barely resembled the man who I’d watched take his last breath that he could not also be the man lying there. It was a complicated feeling that left me off-balance and heartsick.

Which likely explains why I spent every day of my first year of widowhood retracing our steps to figure out what day I actually lost him, what day exactly he lost the parts of him that made him him. I searched through our emails and text messages and photographs to figure out the exact day that he disappeared, to understand how it happened and how I could have missed it the first time around. Surely I would find it now that I was going looking.

But I couldn’t find it. The date I actually lost him is sometime in the days and weeks before he fell into an unconscious state in hospice, and some time after the days when glimmers of him still appeared, despite the grip the disease had on his personality and his charm.

It wasn’t until I learned the term “ambiguous loss” that I began to understand the need to attach a time and date and memory to the moment I truly lost him. And it wasn’t until I found a name for the loss—for that feeling that I’d lost him even while he was standing right in front of me—that I could begin to process it, and also release the guilt of not knowing the exact moment when I lost him.

Ambiguous loss is an idea that was given name and brought into the public discourse by Dr. Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus of family social science at the University of Minnesota and the author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief. It’s a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding and can manifest in two different ways.

There’s physical ambiguous loss, which occurs when someone you love goes missing for a myriad of tragic reasons from kidnapping to war to natural disasters, or as a result of more common places situations, like divorce.

Then there’s ambiguous loss that comes from psychological absence, even if physically present. This kind of ambiguous loss results from situations where Alzheimer’s, addiction, depression, or, as in my case, brain cancer, mean that your loved one is “emotionally or cognitively gone or missing.”

In both instances, the person suffering the loss is left with unanswered questions, and might become frozen in the grief process. Without closure there’s simply an ongoing sense that something isn’t done.

Before I heard the term ambiguous loss, the unsettled uncomfortable feeling was vague and nebulous. It was without definition and unbridled by any limit. But having named it, it’s become something confined and definable, something I can wrap my thoughts around.

Dr. Boss said as much in an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year. She said, “You can’t cope with something until you have a name for it.” She was speaking to naming losses suffered during the pandemic—such as loss of routine, loss of the freedom to go out without restriction and/or worry—but her words have a broader application. I couldn’t begin to cope with losing my husband in a true sense until I understand that my loss was both finite and ambiguous.

Most importantly for me, giving my loss a name gave it a universality that it did not previously have. Before, my search to find an exact time and date for a loss that likely will never lend itself to something so exact, was singular. It felt unique to me, which made it isolating. Knowing it’s not, that there’s a name for it and that others have experienced it, made it universal, and thereby less overwhelming.

Ambiguous loss is a complicated kind of loss with a complicated grief attached to it. But understanding what it is and how it manifests can help process it. I now understand that I lost his breath, his body, the comfort of knowing he was right beside me on February 3 at 9:37 p.m., but that I also suffered a loss—of his smile and of his sense of humor and charm—on some impossible to identify date, and I’m grieving both. I now know that loss can be somehow finite and ambiguous, and knowing that makes it easier—to breathe and to grieve and move forward while keeping the memories tucked close to my heart.

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