Ambiguous Grief


I dedicated a portion of yesterday reading from Pauline Boss’s book entitled “Ambiguous Grief”. She is credited with coining the expression “ambiguous grief” to describe two different kinds of losses. In one people are perceived by family members as physically absent but psychologically present, because it is unclear whether they are dead or alive. Kidnapped children and missing soldiers are catastrophically two classic examples. The families who cling for information and reunification with their loved ones do so relentlessly.

Boss states: “Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate.  An Old English nursery rhyme encapsulates the distressing feeling of uncertainty:

‘As I was walking up the stair,

I met a man who was not there

He was not there again today.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away.’

In the second type of ambiguous loss, a person may be perceived as physically present but psychologically absent. The last three years of my mother’s life she lived without the cognitive ability to know anyone. In a very real sense, my brother and I lost the person we knew as our mother, but physically she was still present with us. Consequently, at some level we began grieving her loss three years before her death.

In both types of losses, the grief experience is intricately more complicated than the normal grief process. In 1917 Sigmund Freud wrote in Mourning and Melancholia:  “The goal of recovery is to relinquish one’s ties to the loved object (person) and eventually invest in a new relationship. This is the difficult work of mourning, but it is a process that is meant to end. From this perspective, people who are emotionally healthy are expected to resolve a loss and move on to new relationships and to do so relatively quickly”.

“In the case of ambiguous loss, however, melancholia, or complicated grieving can be a normal reaction to a complicated situation – the endless searching of a battlefield by the mother of a missing soldier; a stepchild’s angry outbursts when his biological parent is totally excluded; a wife’s depression and withdrawal because her husband has suffered a brain injury and is no longer himself. The inability to resolve such ambiguous losses is due to the outside situation, not to internal personality defects. And the outside force that freezes the grief is the uncertainty and ambiguity of the loss.”

Yesterday afternoon I was busily attempting to pull together content for a one-hour workshop on ambiguous grief. Taking a break from the subject matter, I quickly checked Facebook to discover a message regarding my book, “BITTER OR BETTER”. The message was from one of Ron’s close friends. He had read the book and wanted to thank me for sharing the information. The details he chronicled in his message related to Ron’s importance in his life and that of his families was unmistakably a compliment of great value. Ron had won the hearts of his family and was considered by his parents as a second son. Ron in essence was regarded as the brother he never had.

It was a lengthy message and it was filled with the highest forms of praise for the gift of friendship Ron had provided. The clarity of details across almost four and a half decades was remarkable, but it highlights the reality that ambiguous grief and a sense of loss lingers.

In the interim, how does one fill the gap? I guess there are a lot of different ways that people choose to manage their sorrow. Earlier this week, I mentioned Ray Price’s song, “The Night Life.” It is a song that accurately reflects the emotions of many. You don’t have to look far to find people who are painfully aware that life can be filled with disappointment, heartache and loss. Oftentimes that loss is associated to ambiguous grief. The concluding phrase of the chorus is likely a fair reflection of most people’s experience:

“Mine is just another scene

From the world of broken dreams

Oh, the night life ain’t no good life

But it’s my life”

In his book entitled Winter, Chuck Swindoll shared a devotional thought entitled, “Lessons From A Tavern.” He wrote this:

“An old Marine Corps buddy of mine, to my pleasant surprise, came to know Christ after he was discharged. I say surprise because he cursed loudly, fought hard, chased women, drank heavily, loved war and weapons, and hated chapel services.

“A number of months ago, I ran into this fellow, and after we’d talked awhile, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You know, Chuck, the only thing I still miss is that old fellowship I used to have with all the guys down at the tavern. I remember how we used to sit around and laugh and drink a pitcher of beer and tell stories and let our hair down. I can’t find anything like that for Christians. I no longer have a place to admit my faults and talk about my battles-where somebody won’t preach at me and frown and quote me a verse.’

“It wasn’t one month later that in my reading I came across this profound paragraph: ‘The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit that there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give his church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality-but it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets, and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers. With all my heart,’ this writer concludes, ‘I believe that Christ wants his church to be unshockable, a fellowship where people can come in and say, ‘I’m sunk, I’m beat, I’ve had it.’ Alcoholics Anonymous has this quality-our churches too often miss it.’

“Now before you take up arms to shoot some wag that would compare your church to the corner bar, stop and ask yourself some tough questions, like I had to do. Make a list of some possible embarrassing situations people may not know how to handle…We’re the only outfit I know that shoots its wounded. We can become the most severe, condemning, judgmental, guilt-giving people on the face of planet Earth, and we claim it’s in the name of Jesus Christ. And all the while, we don’t even know we’re doing it. That’s the pathetic part of it all”. — Charles Swindoll

All My Best!



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