Council of Natural Mothers' Library
Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
This slim volume describes
unresolved and ambiguous losses that many people deal with in a way that
makes them comprehensible. The book also points to ways to deal with the
Pauline Boss describes 'ambiguous losses' as:
· those where a family member is physically absent, but psychologically
present because it's unclear whether they are dead or alive. She gives
examples of soldiers missing in action or kidnapped children, and those
where children are lost to adoption.
· where the person is physically present, but psychologically absent,
such as with Alzheimer's or other diseases, or in the grip of addictions
or chronic mental illnesses.
The results of both of these types of loss are the same, however, in that
the grief is not resolved because the ambiguous loss is in the situation--outside
the person. The outside force that freezes the grief is the uncertainty
and ambiguity of the loss.
Boss's research has shown that 'ambiguous loss' is the most stressful
loss people can face. Ambiguous losses typically are a long-term situation
that traumatize and immobilize, rather than a single event that has flashback
effects. People feel helpless and can no longer act because they have
had their hopes raised and dashed so many times. She argues that when
people suffering these losses are evaluated in the traditional way they
often look dysfunctional--exhibiting anxiety, depression and somatic illnesses.
They feel incompetent, as it destroys one's sense of mastery. Ambiguous
losses can freeze people in place so that they can't move on with their
lives and can traumatize, leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Though not the focus of the book, Boss makes specific reference to the
losses in adoption, and the effects on the mother who loses her child
to adoption. She indicates that for the mother and for many of the adopted
people, knowing each other is necessary to resolve the loss, even if their
search yields news that is less than ideal. She feels that adoptive families
should recognize that their boundaries are fluid and include the children's
natural parents, and that leaving unspoken the ambiguity about family
structure is unhealthy for the children. It is healthier to acknowledge
Pauline Boss indicates that with ambiguous losses, there is no right answer
for resolving them. Each person must create the best possible answer for
the moment, and understand that the answer will need to be revised in
the face of changing circumstances. Complicated losses may seem hopeless
and irresolvable, but the power to change can never be taken from us,
she says. The confusion we feel is due to the ambiguity rather than to
anything we did or didn't do. She describes denial as an adaptation that
can be useful, but over time becomes less functional. It is neither something
to avoid nor to advocate. What assists the most is a combination of optimism
and realistic thinking. People can manage this with support from their
own community and the professional community. Of course, for those who
have lost their children or their natural parents to adoption, this understanding
is sometimes more difficult to find.
It is in reunion that I personally can relate to Pauline Boss' explanation
that we must temper our hunger for mastery and learn to redefine our relationship
to the person we've lost. The pain of losing my child and the joy of him
finding me again led me to want to regain what had been lost: I wanted
to be a mother to my son. However, as I came to know him, I realized that
I had to constantly redefine what I hoped for in the situation. In the
end, the relationship I have built with my son is deep and loving, but
it is not entirely a mother/son relationship. There is ambiguity in it.
This ambiguity is not my fault, and it is not his fault. It is inherent
in the flawed institution of closed adoption. The situation is wrong;
we are not. We are damaged by it, and learning to heal from it.
Boss recommends that seeking information is an initial step to resolving
ambiguous loss, thus giving support to natural parents and those adopted
to search for and find each other. She recommends that therapists help
people to understand what ambiguous loss is, and that it's normal to feel
'stuck' in the grip of it. It is the situation, not the person, that is
sick, she says. A strength of the book is Boss' understanding that individuals
are unique and that each person needs to find their own way to resolve
the loss. She sees that people need time for respite as well as time to
engage the loss.
Finally, Boss echoes Frankl in "Man's Search for Meaning," saying
we must make meaning of our losses. She has found four factors which affect
how we find meaning in our losses:
· Our family of origin and early social experiences affect what meaning
we see in situations. This is where we develop rules, roles, and rituals
for making sense out of loss.
· One's spirituality influences how we make sense of losses.
· Our own optimism or pessimism affects our thinking about our losses.
· Our view of the world also affects how we make meaning of our losses.
If we see the world logically, as a fair and just place, we find it hard
to tolerate ambiguous loss, because we see it as what we deserve. On the
other hand, if we see that bad things can happen to good people, and that
an external force caused the loss, it is still tragic, but this frees
the person to act again. Hence, understanding the greed of society for
the children of unsupported mothers, and the lack of protection and support
for single mothers, means that they can stop seeing themselves as wholly
to blame for losing their children.
I would highly recommend this book for all parents who've lost their children
to adoption, and also to those adopted. Though the book deals with many
types of ambiguous losses, and only in a small way specifically with adoption
losses, the applicability of the information is clear and helpful to those
of us who've lost by adoption.
MS: Harvard University Press, 1999
The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers