The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

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When my parents first went to Pakistan, they traveled by boat. They would embark on the journey at New York Harbor, heading to the balcony of the ship so that they could see those they loved, family members and friends, for as long as possible. They would wave goodbye for as long as they could, until finally, land and their loved ones disappeared. I think about this and my throat catches, an ache rising to the surface. Mom and Dad were a young couple and family was critically important to them. They left that family and it cost them.

I would grow up to wave goodbye to Mom and Dad, not from a ship, but from a busy airport gate. I would turn around and wave, finally realizing that leaving was inevitable and I had to keep going. And I in turn have had some of these same experiences with my children. Travel and living between worlds is in our blood, woven through our DNA. But there are losses along the way.

Last week, as I was looking up something for work, I came upon a phrase that is new to me. The phrase is “frozen sadness” or “frozen grief.” The phrase comes from what is described as a “newly identified type of loss.” The researcher, Pauline Boss, introduced the concept in 1999.

In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief,confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict. While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment, but its cause is not always a weak psyche. In the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

I read that ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed to mourn, you are expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Boss and others identify some of the characteristics of ambiguous loss as these:

*Ambiguous loss is unclear loss.
* Ambiguous loss is traumatic loss.
* Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder.
* Ambiguous loss is externally caused (e.g., illness, war), not by individual pathology.
* Ambiguous loss is an uncanny loss—confusing and incomprehensible.

I move on and find out there are two types of ambiguous loss: One is that the person/place/family is physically absent, but psychologically present, in that they may reappear. This can be loss from divorce, moving, boarding school, migration. The other is that the person is physically present, but the core of who they are is absent. Examples of this are people with dementia or alzheimers.

Culturally, the Western World places high value on closure, high value on solutions to problems. Traditional grief counseling would encourage closure and resolution of grief. This is where ambiguous loss differs, there is no closure. Instead, the goal is to become comfortable with paradox.

At this point, it comes to me: this is it! This is the grief of the adult third culture kid. This is what we are talking about. At one point, we longed to express our grief, but felt foolish. What was there to grieve? We loved the unique experiences that defined our childhood. Plus, our experiences were years ago. We have a different life, we have moved forward. But in more honest moments, we realized there was grief, but it was hidden. We realized that being able to see the people and places we loved, even if it was just one more time, would be a gift. But we also realized that sometimes that is not possible. We can’t go back to what was. Perhaps we then recognized that closure would be impossible.  Instead, we would learn to be okay with ambiguity, be at peace with paradox.

And somehow along the way, being at peace with paradox happens. We rediscover who we are, we become confident within that paradox, and we grow to love living between.

“Any third culture kid who lives effectively in her passport country has a moment of truth when she realizes it’s okay to live here; it’s okay to adjust; it’s okay, even if she never feels fully at home, to feel a level of comfort in who she is in her passport country. To adapt doesn’t mean settling for second best. To adapt is to use the gifts she developed through her childhood in order to transcend cultures and to find her niche in both worlds.” Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

*Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss

29 thoughts on “The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

  1. Dear Marilyn, This may be a repeat of sorts, as I think I previously tried to communicate through some other connection.

    I am the Assistant Editor of Simroots, a twice-yearly publication for adult MKs of the SIM and their caregivers. May we have your permission to carry your piece on ambiguous loss in Simroots? It would resonate with many of our readers, I’m sure.

    Thank you, Dan Elyea (MK from Nigeria)

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  2. Reblogged this on The Carpenter's Sight and commented:
    One of the reasons that I was adamant that the kids say goodbye properly to PNG and to not think/ hope/ expect we were going back. They will still suffer from ambiguous loss , but I’m sure it would be worse if we tried to sugarcoat leaving by saying things like ….’you never know’…’we could come back in the future’…or…’there is a long life ahead of you, you may decide on coming back when you r older’ etc. I’d rather them be pleasantly surprised if we did return to PNG, rather than hanging onto that kind of hope. Nevertheless, they will hope to see their friends again in the future as even they know the world is small…so that will also generate a ambiguous loss for them that they will need to work through.

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  3. My mom shared this with me and it completely describes my feelings after divorce. Grieving is hard because as long as my first husband lives there is no resolution to that sense of loss. There is no finality, except that the marriage is over. It’s true that we must learn to be comfortable with the paradox of saying goodbye to one who is still walking around out there somewhere, only not with us anymore. God is the great Healer and only He can help us find peace in the pain. Thank you Marilyn for your spot on analysis and tender sharing.

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  4. I’m quite inspired by this because this is the first time I’ve discovered someone else outside of my community that lived in Pakistan. I grew in Peshawar, Pakistan and lived there from 9 months old in 1999 to 10 years old in Dec of 2008. My dad is still involved in Pakistan and goes back quite frequently to Islamabad and Lahore. I also understand what you’ve felt. Since I moved to the Philippines in 2008, I’ve missed Pakistan a lot and the people that I knew there. Thank you for your article.

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    1. So lovely to hear from you Jessica! I would love to hear more of your story. I know the feeling of missing Pakistan well! Thank you for coming by and reading.

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  5. I can really relate to this Marilyn. However I don’t know that I will ever know ‘closure’ this side of heaven. I feel that over the years what I have come to is a place of ‘acceptance of missing bits’. I feel like I’ve left a little part of myself in so many different places nowhere is totally ‘home’. I’ve learned to live with missing bits without being diminished by the experiences. I guess it is a little like the more you give love away the more love you have to give. The more I’ve given a part of myself to many places and people the larger my heart has become. Does that make sense?

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    1. It makes complete sense. And that’s the paradox as well – that as much as ambiguous loss may be tough, I would far rather have the life I have, the experiences, the places, the people – then not. It’s all worth it!

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  6. Thanks Marilyn, very helpful concept you’ve highlighted. My father passed away recently of old age, peacefully. So a ‘good’ death in many ways. He was a pioneer missionary and persevered where few others would have stuck it out, and he was a faithful witness. But I was never close to him as he didn’t raise his children in a was that fostered closeness, he set exacting standards we had to adhere to, and he never allowed us to express anger. So how do I mourn his passing? Yesterday I was thinking that mostly I felt ambivalent, and today your post showed up in my inbox, so perfect timing!

    Altogether too many of my losses have been ambiguous ones, I’m learning to live with the unresolved, to cry when I can, but otherwise to offer up my ambivalence to God who hears even when we can’t come up with words to pray. (Rm 8:26)

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  7. I really dislike the use of the word ‘closure’. This is a word taken from Gestalt psychotherapy theory that has become sprinkled through our language in a sort of meaningless way. I believe that the need for a TCK, for anyone experiencing loss, is to be able to grieve in whatever way is meaningful for them. It will not change what has happened but will potentially change the person who has experienced loss. I have experienced frozen grief and allowing myself to face up to and feel all those feelings has been life changing for me. I have not yet experienced ‘closure’, nothing will change what happened, I cannot change other people, but I have grown and changed. I still at times feel that grief and it is OK.

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    1. Good observations and words on closure as well as grief and loss! Thank you. I think that is the whole thing with ambiguous loss – it gives us permission to live in that paradox.

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    2. Raewyn, I agree about our common use of the word “closure”. Even in the death of someone we love very much, I think that the goal has to be to allow ourselves the freedom and time to grieve. We need to allow and expect that of the one who is grieving, to come along side to listen and just to be a presence. A friend who lost her husband several years ago wrote, “It’s not loneliness. I have people around me. I have caring family who live nearby. It’s the “aloneness” after being a couple for so many years.” She will never get over it in the sense of closure, but she has come to terms with it, has learned to live with the new normal and is living her life with purpose. I would agree with Marilyn that “ambiguous loss” also needs time and freedom to grieve, but the problem is it too often remains hidden. It needs to faced and named. In a very different area, my husband and I are going through this in the losses we experience with aging – the goal being to finish well, to grow old grace-fully – full of grace. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment.

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      1. I love what you say about the losses of aging Mom – those are very ambiguous losses. And I would agree about closure. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the grief guru, lived to regret the linear way she had defined grief. I don’t think she ever meant for it to be used in such a linear way but when western biomedicine got a hold of it, there you go!

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  8. One of your best of the best, Marilyn. Unrecognized grief — in all its garbs — can waylay us at the least expected times. Wise words like yours can bring comfort, guidance and a path to Grace and healing.

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  9. Marilyn, I’m sure that I never told you this…probably 32 or 33 years ago, I visited you (along with Paul Stock and others) and you made the comment to this newly arrived MK to the States. You told me to give myself grace…time to adjust, and that in that, I would realize that it was okay to be here in the United States! That simple word of encouragement from you was such a balm for my soul way back then. Thanks friend!

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    1. It meant so much to me to hear this memory Susan! I remember that trip so fondly. We had such a good time. But I don’t remember saying that – thank you for the lovely words and reminder.

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  10. Thanks for this. I found your blog 4-5 years ago and it was an immense help in my understanding my grief and TCK identity. I don’t comment often, but I read the blogs regularly. Your series on your orthodox faith helped me ask questions about my own faith (I moved from pentecostal to baptist to reformed with a few digressions on the way). It’s nice to know I’m not alone :)

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  11. This is exactly my experience, Marilyn! After the adoption of our third child I suffered through a year of deep depression. God healed me in an amazing way and through a miraculous process. Through this healing I begin to cry….. I had never been a crier and even found it difficult to do so. But suddenly it was like the tears from years of separation and goodbyes had to be cried. I found myself weeping over deaths and goodbyes from years ago. It was such an interesting process and amazed my family. It brought so much healing. Keep up with the wise words!

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    1. Yes! I know what this is like, though different circumstances. About 9 years ago in Phoenix we sold this home. It was nothing special, but there was something about selling it that brought the grief of a lifetime to the surface. I grieved boarding school and leaving Pakistan, I grieved leaving Egypt and all that meant to me. It was like a monster had been released. And in it, God met me in a way I had never experienced. Thank you for sharing here.

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  12. We all, whether TCK, TCA, or otherwise, experience the ambiguous and paradoxical. It comes with living. You said it well: “And somehow along the way, being at peace with paradox happens. We rediscover who we are, we become confident within that paradox, and we grow to love living between.” Marilyn, one of your best.

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