You have to have something new to hope for sure. You might still keep hoping that somebody with a terminal illness might get better and indeed they do sometimes. Or you might hope as after 9/11, that somebody will be found who was in the trade towers when they fell down. And in fact, a few people were found in another country or in a psychiatric ward and not being able to remember who they were, but for the most part, you keep hoping and you move forward with life in a new way. Without that missing person, you must do both. You cannot just hope because that means you're immobilized, you're frozen in place and the children will suffer, the family will suffer, you will suffer from that. It has to be both/and.” So says, Dr. Pauline Boss, emeritus professor at University of Minnesota and world-renowned as a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of family stress management as well as for her groundbreaking research on what is now known as the theory of ambiguous loss. Dr. Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s to describe a very particular type of loss that defies resolution, blocks coping and meaning-making and freezes the process of grieving. With death, she says, there is official certification of loss, proof of the transformation from life to death, and support for mourners through community rituals and gatherings. In ambiguous loss, none of these markers exist, the lingering murkiness leaving individuals unnerved and stressed out.
In her forty years of clinical experience as a family therapist, Dr. Boss has worked with individuals, couples and families dealing with some kind of ambiguous loss - from families in New York who lost family members during 9/11 and are experiencing the physical kind of ambiguous loss, to those dealing with the psychological ambiguous losses of a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, a loved one with an addiction, or someone who is changing as a result of aging or transitioning. Drawing on research and her immense cache of clinical experience, Dr. Boss has developed six guiding principles for building the resilience to both bear the trauma of ambiguous loss and to move forward and live well, despite experiencing a loss with no certainty or resolution.
She joins me today to discuss this often unrecognized, but ubiquitous type of loss, particularly as it relates to closure - the subject of her most recent book, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. Our conversation touches on our collective grieving following the pandemic and our country’s awakening to the concept of systemic racism; how we can begin to increase our tolerance for ambiguity, and the importance of discovering new hope in the face of grief that has no end. Our search, she tells us, must not be for the elusive concept of closure, but rather for a sense of meaning and a new way to move forward.
Using both/and language around loss…
Pillars of processing…
Moving forward, not moving on…
MORE FROM PAULINE BOSS:
The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change
Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
Loving Someone Who Has Dementia: How to Find Hope While Coping with Stress and Grief
What if There’s No Such Thing as Closure? - NYT Magazine, December 2021
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