What Is Ambiguous Loss? Recognizing and Working with Amorphous Grief

“What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”                                                        

—Helen Keller


Over the last 40 months, I have facilitated over 400 groups in my community. We have shared so much of our lives—our struggles, fears, hopes, joy, loneliness, and pretty much every human emotion you can imagine. As a septuagenarian I have never had such a liminal moment with people. We have crossed many thresholds as we transitioned boundaries and borders with ambiguity and uncertainty—and we did it together. 

Over the course of the months, we collectively and individually grieved as the pandemics and other disasters affected every part of our lives. All of humanity felt the effects of shock, reactivity, grief, and numbness. Even now, as the acute nature of these emotions recedes, many of us continue to have amorphous and vague feelings that we can’t quite describe.


Mixture of Vague Feelings

These feelings have been present over the past months, sometimes in background but other times right there. Think about your own feelings of anxiety and distress. Maybe you feel a slight numbness and you can’t quite reach your usual level of happiness, let alone joy? These vague feelings of distress, sometimes called disenfranchised grief, are often the result of ambiguous loss—losses that remain unclear, are hard to pin down, and have no closure. 

The groundbreaking theory of ambiguous loss was developed by Pauline Boss, PhD. Dr. Boss researched this concept in her seminal book Ambiguous Loss – Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief (1999). In looking for a way to understand “frozen grief”—grief that didn’t seem to resolve with time—she challenged the linear model of grieving and the oversimplified idea of closure. The old model taught that grief would end if you worked hard and went through each stage of grieving. Many losses, especially ambiguous ones, just don’t fit this model. Dr. Boss claims that the word closure created and encourages the myth of a way to tie up painful human transitions.

Dr. Bosss, an 80-year-old woman, resigned in the middle of the pandemic to continue her work on ambiguous loss. Her new book. The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and ChangeThe, is a response the ongoing global waves that are causing grief as the pandemic and other societal disasters continue. We collectively experience ambiguous loss as these catastrophes continue to have an impact on our daily lives and affect our future. 


What is Ambiguous Loss? 

Have you ever wondered, Where have the past two years gone? There is no clear beginning, middle, or end. The losses are complex and nuanced. The basic concept of ambiguous loss is that it is unclear, amorphous, and cannot be resolved; it creates a state of uncertainty. We have lived with constant uncertainty about the COVID virus, its variants, vaccines, and masks, as well as what health protocols to follow and what is safe. We have had to work together to find ways to live with the uncertainty.


Here are some examples from the types of ambiguous loss many of us have had to suffer: 

  • Loss of freedom to move about and to see our loved one and friends
  • Loss of old rituals, rhythms, and behaviors
  • The loss of being able say goodbye to someone we love who has died in hospital alone
  • Uncertainty about healthcare, education, or employment
  • Loss of jobs and salaries, as well as businesses
  • Friendships with people who have different views or opinions about the virus and vaccines could be lost
  • And, perhaps most significantly, the loss of trust that the world is a safe, fair, and just place—and that everything is going to be okay. 



4 Strategies to Deal with Ambiguous Loss 

Although closure is not always possible, positive psychology can offer many tools to help you navigate ambiguous loss and use it as a springboard to growth and resilience. Here are some of my favorite.


Reframe Ambiguity 

His 2020 book is available here Life is about the Transitions: Mastering Change in Any AgeBruce Feiler, a master storyteller offers strategies for navigating pivotal points in our lives. He suggests that we change our mindset to one of “life as nonlinear.” With ambiguous loss as a new normal, the idea of one relationship, one job, or one source of meaning and happiness no longer fits our reality. Feiler describes nonlinear life as containing dozens of transitions or “disruptors,” and that we spend half of our lives in this unsettled state. Accepting that uncertainty is a part of life is a good way to increase our tolerance. We can reframe our ambivalent feelings by describing them with the words “both/and”—mining the good from challenge and crisis. We can find meaning in our losses over time, which helps us to be more resilient.


Create Your Redemptive Story

As we say goodbye to what was, we often struggle with the new shape of our identity—Who am I now and what’s next? Narrative identity theory suggests that we create our newer identity by integrating all life experiences into an evolving story of self, which provides us with coherence, unity, meaning, and purpose. Our redemptive story moves from the pain and struggles to a stronger sense of self and greater resilience.


Self-compassion is a practice that you can do  

Research has shown that people who are more self-compassionate and happier are less stressed, more resilient, and are happier. Kristen Neff’s research pinpoints three essential elements of self-compassion: mindfulness, allowing ourselves to be present with our emotions; a sense of common humanity, recognizing that we are not alone in experiencing hard things; and being kind to ourselves. Her Self-Compassion Break and the many other self-compassion exercises she has created are great resources.


Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture 

Tara Brach’s RAIN practice can be used as a regular meditation or whenever loss, grief, or uncertainty arises. It includes the following steps:

  • Recognize the signs
  • Let the experience be what it is.
  • Investigate with care and interest
  • Nurture with self-compassion

The topic of ambiguous or unexpected loss is not a popular one. We don’t like to talk about death, loneliness, and loss. However, the price is too great if we don’t. Ultimately, I agree with Anne Frank’s words: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” Or, as Rabbi Steven Leder writes in his book The Beauty of What Remains “The pain of our loss is the greatest evidence we can offer of the importance and meaning of life.”                       


Join Nancy for a webinar titled “Ambiguous Loss: Amorphous and Unnamed,” Tuesday, July 26, from 12:00–1:00 pm ET, part of the WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour series. We will identify and make a list of our ambiguous losses, and learn steps to move forward when dealing with grief and uncertainty. Register now

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