I sing songs when I am lonely and cry when it hurts. Yet that which plagues me, my specter, is ephemeral—lacking substance, lacking shape, and lacking form. It is a shadow: a longing and expectation fueled by desire and sustained by hope. I find it difficult to explain my sorrow to those who would comfort me. I mourn a loss that is not a loss—an ambiguous loss.
Psychologists use the term “ambiguous loss” to explain the sorrow all human beings experience in the face of traumatic circumstances; it is everywhere. The mother whose son has been kidnapped pleads with the kidnappers, “Just tell me if my boy is all right!” Ambiguous loss! In New Orleans, they buried the last unclaimed body on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Somewhere a family wonders if their loved one is still alive. Ambiguous loss!
Pauline Boss’ book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, has been a balm to my soul. After seeing the title I thought, “That’s it! Finally, what I feel has a name. Finally, the pain of prolonged singleness had a name.” The single too must learn to live with unresolved grief. The chapters made sense for the single life: “Frozen Grief,” “Leaving without Goodbye,” “Goodbye without Leaving,” “Mixed Emotions,” “Ups and Downs,” “The Turning Point,” “Making Sense of Ambiguity,” and finally “The Benefit of a Doubt.”
“Frozen Grief,” describes a situation in which the loss is unnamed or unnamable. It describes a situation in which the mind considers whether it is right or whether it is time to mourn. “Goodbye without Leaving,” explains the confused sorrow we face when a loved one slowly slips away due to illness or—old age. That person is there, but not there. “Mixed Emotions” corresponds to being “content but not satisfied.” The others are somewhat self-explanatory. All of these fall under the heading “ambiguous loss”—a loss that is not a traditional loss, and thus difficult to mourn.
For a single person, ambiguous loss takes the form of longing for a person who is not there and a family that does not (as yet) exist. A divorced single must face both the longing for what might be and the sorrow of what might have been. Both share the sorrow that is not only difficult to define, but difficult to resolve: a loss that is difficult to mourn—a loss that is not a loss.
As with the spouse of a soldier MIA, singles struggle to keep hope alive: to dream and to keep from growing cynical in the process of waiting. Singles also struggle because, while rejoicing with those who rejoice, they constantly wonder why their dreams and hopes remain unfulfilled. Growing older, they mourn as though something has escaped their grasp. And yet, because marriage is still possible, because hope still exists, they cannot really give up or mourn the loss as a loss. Again, it is a loss that is not a loss. This makes hope a struggle and a proper goodbye—impossible.
There are two reasons, Boss suggests, why ambiguous loss is so devastating to a person. First: “Perceiving loved ones as present when they are physically gone, or perceiving them as gone when they are physically present, can make people feel helpless and thus more prone to depression, anxiety” (7). Secondly, “The uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationships…” This is compounded, Boss adds, because “meaningful connections can’t happen if people in the community never validate an ambiguous loss as a traumatic loss” (79).
The first point is true because “the loss is confusing” and because the uncertainty is baffling. Ambiguity paralyzes. We are unable to make sense of the situation. We can’t problem-solve, because we do not know whether the problem (the loss) “is final or temporary” (7).
The single, called to “prepare for marriage,” must perceive “loved ones as present,” though in reality, they are not. To the woman who has for years walked the aisle in her head, has smelled the roses on the pews, and has heard the wedding march in her ears, marriage may seem a present reality. Marriage is as real to her as the air she breathes. Having never been married, she feels like a widow. How is she to mourn that which has never been? Who will listen without rebuke?
The man, who longs to play ball with his son or to know the comfort of his little girl’s arms, works as though he is already supporting his family. He saves, plans, prepares, and despairs at the thought that, for all his responsible planning, he may leave it all to someone other than his posterity. He never imagined he would be alone for so long.
There are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, mourning children they hoped, by now, to have spoiled rotten. We are not alone in our fears of growing old alone. Our parents too want to see us cared for, and share the baffling sorrow of ambiguous loss.
All must find a way to store these desires without burying them, to nurture them without allowing them to become idols. Socially, there is an inexplicable loss that is not considered a loss. There is a sorrow that seems unfounded and yet is a real sorrow and a real loss—an ambiguous loss that must be mourned.
There are many ways to cope with ambiguous loss, but trying to master the confusion, like trying to harness the wind, will lead to disaster and certain depression. Our longing is important, so we cannot throw it to the ground and beat it into submission. Neither can we, by the power of our will, reason it away. For now, this confused longing and loss is something with which we must live and still thrive.
“Be still and know that I am God”(Psalms 46:10), means simply, “If you know that I am God, you will cease your struggle.” He is God. Let us be still. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble”(46:1). BECAUSE OF THIS “we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (46:2).
“He lifts his voice, the earth melts” (46:6).
“The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (46:7).
“Come and see the works of the LORD… He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth …,” (46:8-9) and He will make the wars within us to cease.
Our comfort in the midst of ambiguity is the certainty that God sees our need and is concerned. “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4). BECAUSE OF THIS—we can be still. “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:7). In this there is no ambiguity.
This article was first published on Crosswalk.com Wednesday, October 1, 2008.