Don’t call us, we’ll call you

December 18, 2008

Ambiguous loss

There is this theory in the social sciences that I have been quite taken with for a while.  It is called ambiguous loss theory.  The gist of it is that a loss with ambiguity is the most difficult kind because you don’t know how to find closure (click here for more info from the ambiguous loss guru).  I first came across it when I was doing some research on young couples dealing with chronic illness, but this theory has been applied to families of  POWs and those missing in action, families experiencing Alzheimer’s, and even those dealing with incarceration of a loved one.  But Pauline Boss, the aforementioned a. l. guru, believes that we all experience ambiguous loss, maybe even on a fairly consistent basis.

Life has got me thinking about this even more lately and tying it to another part of my life and research: history and memory (I was a history major as an undergrad).  I was quite fascinated by the concept of memorials and how and why society chooses to memorialize certain events in certain ways.  I spent a summer traveling the United States interviewing people at various memorials (Oklahoma City bombing, Robert Gould Shaw in Boston, Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., etc.).  One of the patterns that seemed clear is that memorials, whether a national one or a grave marker, give us a concrete place to go and feel  and contemplate the sorrow…and then if we’re lucky, leave some of that pain there so we can move forward with life.  This is a luxury that ambiguous loss does not afford.  How do you mourn an Alzheimer’s patient when they are still there with you…but not?

I’ve been thinking about that second family member interview I wrote about here and how that’s exactly what she was dealing with…an ambiguous loss in which she could see no resolution.  She can’t be with him (only partly because he’s in jail), but she can’t say goodbye to him.  I realized that in a way our interview became that sacred space, that transitory memorializing space  where she could grieve for what she had lost and hopefully, leave some of it there to move forward with life.

I haven’t really talked about my faith or religion on this blog before, mainly because when I think about the issues I am trying to address in my thesis, I need to think scientifically and empirically.  But lately, I don’t feel at all like thinking scientifically.  Weightier matters deserve weighter thoughts than statistics can yield.  And so my thoughts have turned to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and this great hope that they provide: there is no ambiguous loss in God’s eyes.  They have seen and felt and understand intimately what our losses mean for us, even when our finite mortal minds cannot fully articulate or resolve them.  There is unending hope in that, for me, for the people I interviewed this summer, and indeed, for every person that has ever lived, cried, felt, hurt.

Joseph Smith (first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) once said, “All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”  I haven’t seen this, but I have felt it.  I cling to it.



  1. Thanks for writing this.

    Comment by Audrey — December 18, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  2. Amazing post. It was great to see you the other day.

    Comment by Jenn — December 19, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  3. Never truer words spoken. Or more clearly or beautifully.

    Comment by V. Blanchard — December 19, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Good thoughts.

    Comment by Helen — December 19, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

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