On Being: Living with ambiguous loss and without closure
May 28, 2019 9:45 AM   Subscribe

"Our idea is that suffering is something you should get over — and, as you say, cure it or fix it or find some solution for it.... But here’s the crux: Now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution. It could be an illness. It could be a lost person. It could be something like more everyday ambiguous losses such as adoption, divorce, immigration. Now and then, there are problems that don’t have a perfect fix. And then this idea of holding two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time is very useful for stress reduction." Pauline Boss talks with On Being's Krista Tippett about living with ambiguous losses, and with the unsolvable. (Transcript; audio available at the link.)

From the introduction:
Pauline Boss coined the phrase “ambiguous loss” that has become a field in psychology and family therapy and is now an open online course. She was one of the first to name the reality that the so-called “normal” family of the American post-war era often had an absent father at its heart — alive, but not present in meaningful ways, there but not there — and that life and the world are full of circumstances where there is grieving but no closure. Pauline Boss says closure is a myth that leads us astray.
It's a nuanced conversation about heavy topics like grief, depression, sadness, illness, loss, death, and finding meaning in meaninglessness.
posted by MonkeyToes (20 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who has a LOT of Alzheimer's in his family, this resonates with me so much. You hear, when you are a caretaker or know caretakers, well-meaning people saying something along the lines of not mourning someone who isn't gone yet, but when the leaving is incremental and cruel, you need a whole new vocabulary for it.
posted by xingcat at 10:23 AM on May 28, 2019 [29 favorites]

With me, as well. Something that saved me is the local widow's group - every couple of weeks, we all get together and have a good meal and talk about our lost ones. It's such a relief to be with people who actually understand that it still hurts, even after a year or two or even decades.
posted by Mogur at 11:30 AM on May 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

Thank you for this!

I love listening to On Being. I sort of accidentally discovered it early one Sunday morning years ago, and have been trying to be a regular listener ever since. Krista Tippett is a wonderful interviewer.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:02 PM on May 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I really connect with the concept of ambiguous loss. My grandmother has severe dementia, my mother is mentally ill, my father is an (active) alcoholic, and the rest of the family is in another country speaking another language and foreign to me in all ways. Etc. It does not feel good, and not in a way that's easy to communicate. Because from the outside, it's like, all these people and relationships are there, they exist. I visit my grandmother or get birthday cards for my father or whatever. I "have" a grandmother and father and in fact have tons of responsibilities toward my relatives to the point that I have more or less had to build my life around them.

But from the inside, it's not real. These people are absent in every meaningful way, our relationships don't exist in any meaningful or even commonly recognizable way. All it is is going through the motions -- and there are so many motions, and sometimes they're extremely painful to go through because it's all just such a tragic farce.

So I'm very grateful to Boss for coming up with this concept. But perversely, I kind of don't agree with her framing because it makes the grief from this sort of loss sound so abstract. The thing that's strange with a lot of "ambiguous loss," though, is that the person being grieved is often physically there and probably needs a lot of attention and care, and the devolution of your relationship with them (or the hope of ever having one) is not abstract at all. It's something that you have to face and compensate for every day, you have to constantly try and prop up a ridiculous and painful facade that they're not really gone, that they aren't really lost to you already (and maybe always have been). Death is an abstraction. But someone being absent in all meaningful ways but present in all concrete ones is...not abstract at all, and that's what's so difficult about it. At least for me, I can't speak for others. And obviously it's different for people who are grieving loved ones who have gone missing or are physically lost.

I connected a lot with her talking about that yearning for the binary, though. There are plenty of times that I've wished for one, wished someone was literally as well as emotionally/psychologically absent, both because the ambiguity is personally painful and (maybe more importantly) because the ambiguity is so hard to communicate.
posted by rue72 at 12:37 PM on May 28, 2019 [27 favorites]

well-meaning people saying something along the lines of not mourning someone who isn't gone yet

My family mourned the loss of our father to Lewy-body Dementia for around five years before we lost him for good, so I know what you mean. Thank you for sharing that.
posted by davejay at 1:32 PM on May 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

When I lost my mom to Alzheimer's, it was more of a long-form mourning. I gradually lost her over a period of a couple years and, by the time she passed, I was past mourning. I often think there's something wrong with me in that I never mourned her passing, but my wife reminds me that, in a very real sense, I lost her (and mourned for her) long before then.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:39 PM on May 28, 2019 [17 favorites]

Now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution.

We should teach the opposite -- it's the rare problem that has a simple solution.
posted by benzenedream at 1:49 PM on May 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

I was just so relieved when my dad died. He'd been lost for a looooong time before, I did not feel like he was "in there" and if he was there was no way to communicate that, so I was just glad it was all over. Everyone told me I'd still have fresh new grief over it, but I didn't. I was bled dry long before.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2019 [13 favorites]

I really loved learning about the term ambiguous loss and like Pauline says in the interview, learning of the phrase and its meaning in itself helped me immensely and made me feel less alone.

Her comments, and Krista's comments, about the immigrant experience especially resonated with me today, as it's something that we've long witnessed and experienced in our family but couldn't always articulate; "...we don’t kind of acknowledge the grief or that homesickness or that sadness, that loss that must always be there, even when people have made a choice to go far away."

And I really like her method of saying "What does this mean to you?" as a way to provide people the space to talk about loss or grief in a way that doesn't presume or pressure. I can think of many, many situations where this would be helpful and will be trying to remember to use it going forward.
posted by stellaluna at 3:01 PM on May 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

The folks sharing there stories here just reaffirm for me what I feel in working with a lot of families dealing with dementia (my in-laws included); this concept of ambiguous loss is one of the most powerful things we share, I think; having a name for it really helps along with just the acknowledgement of the fact that they are grieving, even if the family member is still with us - they are grieving the ongoing losses that are happening. We also talk about (and these concepts might be in the article, I only did a quick search on terms and didn't see them)disenfranchised grief - the fact that they are grieving, even though no one has died, and that that grief is not acknowledged or understood; there is an attitude that because the person is still alive, there can't be grief and mourning - but we mourn losses other than death. We also talk about anticipatory/preparatory grieving - the fact that many family members of people with dementia start grieving for the losses that are coming, which compounds what they are feeling in the moment but also prepares them for what is next (which is to say, Thorzdad & jenfullmoon, your experience is not at all uncommon - relief is pretty common at the moment of physical death for the families, because they have been preparing for that moment for a long time; they have already done their grieving and are ready to move on. That's actually healthy).

This complex mix of grief can also produce guilt ("why am I grieving? X is still here! We don't grieve until someone dies!" or "X is dead...but I don't feel sad, I feel relieved; what's wrong with me?").

Anyways, grief and loss are far more complex things than we usually acknowledge, so I'm really glad that the concept of ambiguous loss is around to allow us to have conversations like this.
posted by nubs at 3:04 PM on May 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is the first I've heard of the concept of ambiguous loss, at least as it's presented here. Intuitively it makes perfect sense, and it's helpful to have a name for it.

I wish I'd had some insight into this concept when I was married to someone who was physically present but largely psychologically and emotionally absent. It would've been helpful after we divorced, too. It would've helped me better understand and validate (even just to myself) the fact that I needed to grieve the loss of that marriage incrementally for many years before the divorce actually took place. I mean, I knew that intellectually, but knowing it intellectually isn't the same as allowing the grief to actually move through me viscerally.

In fact, as I'm looking back on that experience after reading the article, I'm just now realizing that there were aspects of unexpressed grief that "built up" as if stopped behind a dam, because they had nowhere to go. There was no one to name, acknowledge, or receive them. The divorce burst that dam, and over a decade of hidden layers of accumulated grief flooded over me. Small wonder, then, that I could barely even function in the aftermath. It took all the energy I had just to keep my head above the water to breathe.

At the time, I had a lot of trouble grasping why the devastation I felt at the loss of that marriage was even more debilitating than the aftermath of the loss of my father, whom I also loved dearly. It makes a lot more sense now. And furthermore, that divorce cost me not only a 14-year spousal relationship, but also my financial safety net. My life's savings, my dream house, my health insurance, and an entire circle of friends all vanished in the space of a few months, leaving me to start over from scratch in middle age. I'm still paying the price for that loss to this day.

That was 12 years ago. And now I've got another reason to be grateful for this concept.

Last October, my stepfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He's 82. My mother has been caring for him, and although I rarely see her in person, I text back and forth with her frequently. Last week she told me he's beginning to lose the memories of how to cook his favorite dinners, so she's learning how to make those dinners right now. She's hoping that when the memories are no longer retrievable for him, she can cook these dinners to bring him some enjoyment. She also said that she's glad she's doing it now, because they are "right on the cuff."

Dear gods, how it breaks my heart to think about what she must be going through even at this stage. My mother is among the most kind-hearted, generous, and caring people you could ever meet. I haven't said this to her, but...I can't help but hope that he'll die mercifully before the final stages of this cruel disease take over.

I'm bookmarking this article. I think my mother and I will both be needing it. Thank you.
posted by velvet winter at 3:39 PM on May 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

After my divorce, my friend took me in for about a year. I regained my life, he lost his two months after I left. I didn't hear till 3 days after his death, his funeral, the next day, which I just couldn't attend...besides, he would understand. H.W.U, let's set that aside. Military burial, family only, and I'm not lurking at my best friend's funeral, H.W.U.

His wife cut off his family completely. Sold all his stuff. I stopped a week after and a sign read not to even knock unless prior blah-blah. His sister lives cross the way, says nothing to no one about nothing.
My buddy and I talked alot about death in those 9 months, all the while he was, slowly. I guess that why its called a pallor and I'm not sure what it was from but with MS, Diabetes and a mean painkiller habit from a service injury.
No closure except one of those lawn lights I took after reading that damn note.

Still shining on my discothèque sized deck. I believe we make peace even without conventional closure whatever that is.
posted by clavdivs at 4:30 PM on May 28, 2019 [15 favorites]

Thank you for posting this.

I am most familiar with the concept of ambiguous loss because of my struggles with infertility, pregnancy loss, and, ultimately, childlessness.

The pregnancy losses were awful, and I grieved them hard, but the struggle to conceive was also a loss, and knowing I will never be a parent is another kind of loss. One of the hardest things to communicate to people who have children, even if they experienced struggles conceiving them--or people who never wanted children in the first place--is that the continuation of my life without the children I wanted is a loss in itself. It is like a death separate from the losses of the babies I did conceive. And there are constant reminders of this loss: I will never experience the milestones parents experience with their children such as first steps, first words, first day of school, graduation, possibly seeing your child get married, possibly becoming a grandparent. All I know is that I will feel these losses until I die. So she is right: there is no "closure." How could this feeling of loss ever "go away"? How would I ever "get over it"? I wanted children and I will never have them. One cannot make that fact not true except by having children, and it is too late for me. Now, I can still have a good life, and I can still be happy a lot of the time, but I am a changed person and I always will be. This experience has changed me profoundly and permanently, and sometimes what I want is an acknowledgment of that, not a glossing over or minimizing.
Pauline Boss: ...here’s the crux: Now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution. It could be an illness. It could be a lost person. It could be something like more everyday ambiguous losses such as adoption, divorce, immigration. Now and then, there are problems that don’t have a perfect fix. And then this idea of holding two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time is very useful for stress reduction.

Krista Tippett: I think one of the questions that is on many people’s minds when you have this conversation is, “What do you know about what’s the best way to react?” I was listening to you on a call-in show. People would call in, and everybody had such a unique story. I remember a woman whose brother, I think, went hiking and just never came back. It was a wilderness area, and they never found his body. It was a decade ago. I listened to you listening to her, and the question you asked was, “How long has it been?” It was 10 years, 14 years. I think that might be a question that, in normal interactions, one might be embarrassed to ask or feel like that would take them back or something. So you asked that, and she answered it. And then you just said, “I am so sorry.”

Pauline Boss: I remember that. There’s really nothing else to say. And I think we could help each other in society to learn how to speak to people who have missing loved ones. I think it’s perfectly good to ask them, “How long has it been?” Because they want to tell you how long it’s been, and sometimes it’s been decades. For example, with the Holocaust and slavery, shall we go back, and Civil War, and with the Native Americans, and any genocide throughout the world, it can be a hundred years, and they still remember it. So it’s OK to say, “How long has it been?” And then to say probably the only honest thing you can say, if you feel it, and that is, “I’m sorry.” We can’t fix it, you see. We can’t fix it.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:58 PM on May 28, 2019 [14 favorites]

Now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution.
We should teach the opposite -- it's the rare problem that has a simple solution.
I had a counseling professor who distinguished between problems (which are solvable, though the solution might be difficult) and conditions, which could not be solved, only managed. It's a simple taxonomy, but I've returned to it again and again--is this a problem which I should work hard to solve, or a condition that I should accept and manage? I've found that quite helpful, and now use it with my kids when they are faced with a challenge.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:01 PM on May 28, 2019 [46 favorites]

Pater Aletheias, that is perfect. Problem vs. condition. I have gotten more peaceful as I have accepted my own childlessness as a condition as opposed to a problem. At this point there is no solution; it is a condition I need to learn to manage and live with. And the more I frame it for myself that way, the easier it is.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:05 PM on May 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, this nicely summarizes my life since January. Everything she says makes sense, but I was sort of hoping it would bring about more of an immediate feeling of relief than it does.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:06 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

A lot to think about, but in short: I cried. Thank you.
posted by epersonae at 9:15 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I came out as trans (and transitioned), I lost most of my blood family. My father maintains contact, and occasionally he will mention one of my brothers.

The loss I've experienced has been very ambiguous. I can drive by my brother's house (he won't recognize me or my car) and see his dog in the yard, but I am not allowed to park / get out / mosey on over. I can read an email about how this brother or that brother has some accomplishment, but I am not allowed to share in the congratulatory moment.

this article resonated with me.
posted by dwbrant at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I posted an Ask a couple months ago that led to a Mefite introducing me to ambiguous loss (very helpfully, thank you again). It felt like finding a skeleton key that fit a lock I hadn't been able to crack for months.

As the weeks have passed, I've gotten a sort of *intellectual* relief from the concept but am no more stoic with the emotional strain. I understand that coming to terms with this kind of loss is a long route, and yet some days the notion of ambiguous loss can seem just as unsettling as the fog of not having a phrase to describe it. It feels a bit like a repurposed kind of stoicism, and, in times of great grief, I don't know if I can always aspire to that. What I've found, though, is that there is comfort in numbers. If you're struggling with ambiguous loss, consider reaching out to a support group, however tangential to your situation, and go spend some time around other people who seek the same kind of fellowship. It can be a salve in surprising ways to share your grief when you can't muster the power of acceptance on your own.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:50 PM on May 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I posted an Ask a couple months ago that led to a Mefite introducing me to ambiguous loss (very helpfully, thank you again).

That was me, and that concept has been quite helpful for me, too (which is why it resonated when I stumbled across the phrase in the article I linked in my comment earlier in your thread). I really appreciate you sharing your update and I am sorry for your (very real) loss.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:51 PM on June 10, 2019

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