Vanished without a trace! That is how CNN described the disappearance of a young boy snatched by a stranger from his front yard. The boy was never found, leaving his distraught parents to forever wonder what happened to him, never able to fully resolve their anguish and grief. Vanished! He was gone. There was no explanation or resolution.
Two people stand in front of family, friends, and a preacher to vow their lifelong love. Then life happens. Bills mount; children arrive; careers take off; and emotional distance sets in along with all the responsibilities. Often couples can’t understand how things got so bad so quickly. Divorce seems to be the only answer. Their dream of a happy marriage has died.
“Your job is being terminated. We just can’t use you anymore.” That’s what many people hear from companies they have been employed by for years. Their work is a large part of their life, their financial support. Now what? Besides the concern about putting food on the table, they now feel a loss of purpose and self-esteem. Cynically they go over the words their employer used: “We just can’t use you anymore.”
Anguished parents, divorced couples, and laid-off workers are all examples of a type of unresolved grief that has become so common in our society that it now has a name: ambiguous loss.
Ambiguous Loss—What Is It?
Ambiguous loss, as originally described by researcher Pauline Boss, occurs when a person experiences a loss, but the exact nature or some aspect of the loss is unclear. Confusion is related to the loss. Something valuable is gone and there’s no resolution, no finality, no reasonable way to come to terms with the loss, no sense of closure. The loss is real but ambiguous at the same time.
For example, when a person dies from a heart attack, we have ways to grieve the death. The community comes together to support the family, and a funeral is held. Ambiguous loss, however, is a different thing. There’s no formal way to grieve, often no support is extended, and there’s no traditional way to behave.
The ambiguous loss of relationship directly affects divorced adults. Their children experience the loss of a parent through no fault of their own. Ambiguous loss can occur when the medical diagnosis is terminal. Health and happiness vanish within the specter of imminent death. Adoption is frequently an ambiguous loss for the mother who gives her child away and for the child who never knows their biological parents. Abortion, though not often discussed, may represent an ambiguous loss for both women and men.
Ambiguous loss occurs in the family of a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Memories are obliterated, family members reduced to strangers in the vacuous eyes of their loved one. The individual is alive, but the person the family knew is gone. Then there’s the very real impact of terrorism, which has caused people to have an ambiguous loss of security and confidence in humanity.
Ambiguous loss can also strike the spiritual life. Worry, anxiety, and daily cares can make a once-strong relationship with Jesus vanish with barely a trace. The loss of the first-love experience referred to in Revelation 2 is a spiritual ambiguous loss. This type of loss is crucial because it can affect our eternal destiny. And it can sneak up on us over the course of time. Missed devotional time, lack of prayer, secular choices, trusting in our own resources, and not recognizing God’s providence—all add up to living with a loss of perspective toward eternity.
What Can It Do?
Ambiguous loss is stressful and insidious. Left unchecked, it can lead to emotional, spiritual, and physical illness. In reality, how we cope (or fail to cope) with our losses can make the difference between success and failure in our personal and spiritual life. And ambiguous loss, at some time or another, will come to everyone. How can I say that? Because being alive guarantees that we will have losses. If we could control things, maybe we could avoid loss. But we can’t control what other people do—they cause us pain. Truth is, we often can’t control what we do—we hurt our own selves. We certainly can’t control circumstances—and things can turn bad quickly. We don’t want it, but either we have had, are currently having, or will have an encounter with loss.
So, how can we handle the ambiguous losses that we will inevitably face? Here are four keys from the Bible and Christian psychology that provide help in dealing with ambiguous loss:
1 Be Resilient
Losses happen in this life—we have to accept that. And when bad things happen we can’t always answer the question “Why?” So to some extent we have to develop a level of comfort with the questions of life. Don’t try to explain everything. Don’t attempt to make everything fit neatly. Resilience enables us to experience loss and be able to bounce back. That’s the key—being resilient enough to bounce back. Being resilient is a gritty determination to survive. We may be knocked down, but a resilient attitude says that God is in charge, He controls what happens to us, and He will supply the grace we need to handle our challenges.
2 Be Engaged
To get through a loss you have to acknowledge that you have had a loss. Counselors suggest writing down your losses so you can come to grips with them. You may need the help of a professional therapist. If so, get help. Then devise a way to appropriately grieve the loss—whether the loss is a person, a relationship, an expectation—whatever. The important thing is that you determine not to stay in the grief; you have to move on. Reengage with life and people. Moving on may mean that you have to forgive and refuse to live with bitterness and resentment. The key is being engaged rather than isolated and withdrawn.
3 Be Disciplined
Ambiguous loss opens the door for fearfulness, loss of control, and pain to invade the thoughts and emotions. It takes discipline to resist being afraid, angry, and feeling helpless. Here is where the spiritual disciplines of consistent prayer, Bible study, devotion, and worship are so therapeutic. These disciplines are basic but necessary for spiritual life and recovery after loss. The writer of Hebrews (12:15) says that as believers we have a responsibility to act as a bishop over our heart. In other words, we have a positive duty to exercise control over our attitudes and actions so that evil will not spring up.
Remember the story of how Jesus’ parents “lost” Him on the Jerusalem trip? Mary and Joseph traveled home, unaware that the 12-year-old Jesus was not with them. In telling the story, Ellen White draws a spiritual lesson:
“In our association with one another, we should take heed lest we forget Jesus, and pass along unmindful that He is not with us. When we become absorbed in worldly things so that we have no thought for Him in whom our hope of eternal life is centered, we separate ourselves from Jesus and from the heavenly angels. . . . This is why discouragement so often exists among the professed followers of Christ.”*
4 Be Expectant
The last strategy is perhaps the most potent: being expectant for the glory to come. Doggedly hold on to your faith in God. We can deal with the pain if we expect that Jesus will keep His promises to us. After all, He said: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5, NKJV).† He spoke through Jeremiah to encourage us: “Trust me,” He says, “I have a plan for you.” “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, . . . thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). His promise is that one day He will make all things new, remove all pain, wipe away every tear. We know that God is using the events of life—even the pain—to move us from loss to gain. So we are expectant; we look for God.
As a physical therapist, I’ve had the privilege of working with people who have survived tremendous physical and emotional loss. Step by step, literally, they have had to reclaim their lives based on the principle that there is always a way to rebuild, to reconstruct what appears to be lost. The strategies listed here give us a way to handle loss and rebuild life. But God does not leave us to manage on our own. He offers peace and healing, even in the midst of our real and ambiguous losses. He gives us the power to be victorious.
* White, Ellen G., The Desire of Ages, p. 83.
† All Bible texts are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Susan Baker was director of the Allied Health Program, department of chemistry, at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, when she wrote this article. This article was published November 11, 2010.