Ambiguous loss: A type of grief that is present even without death

african american woman fetal position on bed

By Michel Rousseau • JFCS Therapist

A large part of my clinical practice as a psychotherapist at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis focuses on supporting those who are grieving. Even though everyone faces experiences surrounding death and dying at some point in their lives, grief and loss can feel overwhelming and are often avoided in conversation. One aspect of grief and loss that is rarely talked about or acknowledged is ambiguous loss.

Ambiguous loss refers to any loss that remains unclear and without official verification or immediate resolution. The term itself was conceived by educator and researcher Dr. Pauline Boss in the 1970s. Ambiguous loss comes in many forms – here are some examples:

  • A loss that occurs when there is a physical absence with emotional/psychological presence: This includes losses with a person or group of people where there is not a verification of their death, wellbeing, or understanding of their absence, such as immigration, adoption, or someone who is incarcerated or serving in the military. A modern-day example of this type of ambiguous loss is experienced by those ghosted within a relationship. “Ghosting” is a practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly or without explanation withdrawing from all communication.
  • A loss that occurs when there is an emotional/psychological absence with physical presence: These include a loss of relationship due to Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia, addiction, traumatic brain injury, or severe and persistent mental illness.
  • A loss that occurs within a person’s relationship to themselves: These include a loss of dreams, loss of ability (due to personal injury or illness), or a loss of future potential.
  • A loss that occurs on a macro, societal/global level: These include losses experienced simultaneously by a large group of people, such as the impacts of COVID-19, ongoing impacts of climate change, and other global events.

Said simply, a person doesn’t have to pass away for someone to experience grief and loss. Ambiguous loss and its numerous forms expand on our understanding of how to measure, acknowledge, and thereby talk about the experience of grief and loss. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family or professionals if you are grieving. Despite my bias given the work I do at JFCS, I believe there is catharsis in talking things out. Know that Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis is here for you if you are struggling with grief and loss of any kind.

To meet with a provider in the Counseling department, call 952-546-0616 or click here.