How to Support Families Dealing with Ambiguous Loss

In light of recent events across the world like Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the devastating landslide in Washington state, the effects of ambiguous loss are top of mind. We had the opportunity to discuss this pressing topic with our own Pauline Boss, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Family Social Science. Pauline is not only the principle theorist behind ambiguous loss; she created the concept and coined the term. She has also been a leading contributor to the study of family stress for more than 30 years. Despite major media outlets recently vying for her time, Dr. Boss was kind of enough to share her expertise here.

Closure is not a good word to use in human relationships. Even after a clear-cut death, it can be understandably hard for loved ones to turn the page and move on. But ambiguous loss, like we’re seeing now, makes it all the more impossible. In such tragic events, people must learn to hold the uncertainty that comes with a missing loved one—and they may have to do so for a lifetime. Accepting this kind of loss can provide families with both strength and resilience, helping them move forward and live good lives despite the pain of ambiguous loss.

The public, and we as professionals, must also learn to hold the uncertainty of ambiguous loss. We yearn for closure because we can’t stand to watch suffering. But now and then an event comes along that remains mysterious and doesn’t have an answer. Consider the following ways to support a close friend or family dealing with ambiguous loss:

  1. Give up on the word closure. If you tell the family of a missing person they should find closure, they often become angry, and I find their anger to be justified. It’s important to communicate an understanding of ambiguous loss—it’s one of the hardest kinds of loss there is because closure is almost always impossible.
  2. Have more patience. Families of missing persons often experience frozen grief. In other words, they find it difficult to grieve out of guilt that their loved one may still be alive. But they are impacted in other ways that may go unnoticed. Financial problems and stress on existing relationships are just two examples.
  3. Do not isolate. Don’t be afraid to talk to the friends and family of a missing person even if you don’t know what to say. A simple greeting or “I’m sorry to hear…” can provide welcomed comfort. The one thing you should always avoid is offering sympathies or condolences when there is no clear-cut death. We are responsible to hold the ambiguity with them.

Additional Resources

Featured Resource

Families of the Missing: A Test for Contemporary Approaches to Transitional Justice
(Book by Dr. Simon Robbins)

Author Dr. Simon Robins is a practitioner and researcher who worked with families of the missing through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He gives voice to the families left behind. According to Olivier Dubois, Deputy Head of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division of the ICRC, his research has “helped the International Committee of the Red Cross design new humanitarian interventions for families of missing persons…”

Pauline Boss

About the Author

Pauline Boss, Ph.D.

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