The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

rose-hip-1157297_1280

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