A couple weeks ago I ran across the phrase “ambiguous loss.” Coined by Dr. Pauline Boss, it refers to a sense of grief over something undefined. Dr. Boss originally used the term to to describe the experience of either losing a person who is still physically present, as with dementia, or someone whose physical absence in unexplained, as with a soldier missing in action. The concept of ambiguous loss has extended to something never possessed, or an event that may happen, but doesn’t look likely. For example, the child of immigrants might feel homesickness for a country and culture he never knew. A woman nearing the end of childbearing years may feel the absence of babies she never had, but always assumed she would. The loss is something they never had, and also something that has not quite become an impossibility yet.
Parents whose kids suffer from mental illness feel this ambiguous loss, often without being able to put their fingers on why they feel it. The typical hill-and-valley nature of most mental illness journeys adds to the experience. If a star student athlete endures a devastating injury and can no longer play his sport, he and his family grieves, but the loss in unambiguous. With healthy processing, acceptance can be achieved. It’s different with an injury that may heal and allow the athlete to return, or may never get well enough.
Mental illness usually resembles the second example. Our kids may someday be able to graduate high school, or hold a job, or go to college, or live independently, or have a healthy romance/marriage, or … but they may not. We can’t accept the loss of those things, because that would be like giving up. But we can’t let ourselves dream about those futures either, because how many times can we let our hearts break? We may cry when our friends’ kids start getting married and having babies. We may stay home from church the day all the graduating seniors are honored. But then we feel guilty for assuming we will never have that joy. There is still the possibility that the meds will work, that recovery will continue, that our kids will have full lives with sustainable stability.
When we can’t acknowledge grief, then the process is stunted. Dr. Boss believes that more we can learn to live with two clashing realities, the more the stress of ambiguous loss is lessened:
“We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone. And let’s say you have someone with dementia or a child with autism, and they’re there, but they’re not always there. So once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that may be the closest to the truth that they’re going to get.” (Dr. Pauline Boss, interview, “On Being with Kristen Tippett,” air date June 23, 2016)
Are you struggling with ambiguous loss? Just being able to recognize it is the first important step to lessening its damage to your soul. We can find similar paradoxes in the Christian faith. We are living in both the “now” and the “not yet.” We are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 2:6) but “in this world (we have) trouble.” (John 16:33) Can we learn to rest in knowing that both are truth? Likewise, can we look into the faces of maybe and maybe not, and allow them to coexist?
A tree shedding its flowers or pinecones or whirling seedpods may or may not have offspring. But the in-between of unknowing can still be beautiful. I pray we all find peace with the unknowing.