Ambiguous Loss

Elephant011_1 Lately I have been interested in the work of Dr. Pauline Boss, who was housed only a hop, skip and jump away from me last year in graduate school. Unfortunately, I did not know who she was then, or the important work she has been doing on the subject of ambiguous loss.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it was first theorized in the late 60s and early 70s regarding the loss of men who were missing in action during war, and the effects of that unknowing on their spouses and families.

The concept has been expanded over the past forty years or so to include others. And what I find so intriguing is that there are two types of “loss” that are described and defined; that of having a loved one physically present but emotionally and psychologically absent (for instance, having a parent with mental health issues or Alzheimer’s disease), and that of having a loved one emotionally and psychologically present but physically absent (such as in the case of divorce or having a parent in prison).

Naturally, this makes me think about the ambiguous loss that is present in all of those involved in the adoption triad. As an adoptee, I will speak about the effects of ambiguous loss on adopted persons but that in no way negates the very real issues of ambiguous loss in first families and adoptive families.

Many people have criticized the memoir The Language of Blood for what they perceive to see as a missive against the author’s adoptive parents; I look at Jane’s story as the embodiment of what happens when ambiguous loss is never defined, discussed or dealt with.

According to Boss in her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, “the greater the ambiguity surrounding one’s loss, the more difficult it is to master it and the greater one’s depression, anxiety and family conflict.” Boss suggests that the symptoms of ambiguous loss’ unresolved grief can be very similar to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Why is this? Because of three reasons, writes Boss. First, people can’t resolve an issue if they don’t really know what that problem is. This uncertainty about the ambiguous issue then “prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationship with the loved one.”

In addition, people facing ambiguous loss “are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss.” In a death, for example, everyone agrees there is a loss and there is a funeral or a memorial service that signals a time for grieving. Perhaps there is a burial marker where one can go to and remember that loved one. In adoption, there is no such symbol or ritual for the adoptee to process and support that relationship loss.

Adoptees who don’t know if their first parents are dead or alive have no such ritual in place for them. And if it is known that the parents are alive but the answers for why they were placed for adoption are unknown, that adopted person could interpret every birthday or “gotcha” day as a symbol of what they’ve lost on a yearly basis instead of the happy day it should be.

Despite the natural correlation of ambiguous loss and adoption, Boss’ book only touches on this subject. For adoptive parents, Boss writes that “one way to determine adoptive parents’ tolerance for ambiguity may be to explore whether they chose an open or closed adoption.” In addition, Boss writes that for both the adoptive parent and the adopted child the first mother is psychologically present, though physically absent.

“Acting as if the membership list of an adoptive family is etched in stone may in the end be more stressful than explicitly recognizing that the family has ambiguous boundaries” writes Boss. It is a skill that the adoptive parent and child must both learn – letting go of the “absolute and precise definition of family.” To me, this is the proverbial elephant in the room. Too many adoptive families exist walking gingerly around the elephant; pretending it’s not there, or blatantly walking right by without an acknowledgement.

I have found in talking to adult adoptees that those adoptive parents who are the most rigid are the ones whose children experience the most amount of friction as they become adults. In her chapter, Mixed Emotions, Boss writes that:

“Because of the ambiguity loved ones can’t make sense out of their situation and emotionally are pulled in opposing directions – love and hate for the same person; acceptance and rejection of their caregiving role; affirmation and denial of their loss. Often people feel they must withhold their emotions . . . because social norms dictate that becoming upset is inappropriate and will only bring further harm . . . When there is a chance that we will never see a loved one again, we protect ourselves from the prospect of losing that person by becoming ambivalent – holding our spouse at arm’s length, picking a fight with a parent . . . Anticipating a loss, we both cling to our loved ones and push them away.”

For many of us adopted persons, the lingering effects of ambiguous loss follow us through to other relationships in our life. If we can’t resolve the very first, primal relationship we had, that with our birth mother, it makes sense to me that other relationships in our life will bring up issues of trust and loyalties. How can we truly bond and trust our adoptive parents if in the back of our mind there is always the question of what happened to our first mother?

In her documentary First Person Plural, filmmaker and Korean adoptee Deann Borshay is so confused by this issue of ambiguity that for her to deal with it, she needs to see both her Korean mother and her adoptive mother in the same room at the same time.

For myself, I truly relate to the struggle to understand and process the fact that I have no idea if my Korean parents are still alive. At an earlier point in my life, I would have chalked all my “trust” issues on “abandonment” or “attachment” issues. But having a framework of ambiguous loss makes a lot of sense to me.

After six (almost seven) years of searching for information about my Korean family, I haven’t given up, but I am no longer “actively” searching. Until I told my adoptive parents that I was beginning the search process, the loss of my Korean parents had never been discussed in my family. The search itself, while yielding no results, has allowed me to learn how to live with the ambiguity.

As for the elephant in the room, I’m no longer pretending it’s not there. Let’s just say, I’ve invited the elephant to stay, and join me for dinner.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

13 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this, it is an excellent framework for understanding adoptee grief, an understanding which is very elusive for we AP’s. In my most recent post, I talked about how for me–with my undeniable investment in being THE mom–it is freaking hard to let the elephant stay. And you say embrace it? YIKES. In my efforts to do the right thing, it’s a matter of pushing my actions and words ahead of my emotions because my emotions make me want to shut it all down. Both you and Sume wrote posts today that affirm the not-shutting. I needed dat.

  2. Amazing post.
    Just found you through KimKim.
    I’m an adoptee from Australia – just new to this blogging phenom.
    I would love to link to you blog – if that’s ok.
    I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    Cheers, Chez. :o)

  3. I have been thinking about the definition of family since Jenna’s post here about looking for a book for her son that would include their family with a sister that was adopted by another family. Your mention of the need to hold an ambiguous understanding of family boundaries rings a bell for me. I can’t think of a good definition of family, because there is no clear line. It makes me realize yet again how hard it is to put that in a kid’s book in a meaningful way. I want my sons to recognize their first families as part of their real family, even though we don’t know them directly. Finding the terms to talk about it all is a rocky road. But from this post I am encouraged that the ambiguity is OK and maybe even healthy.

  4. As a grad of FSoS I feel compelled to let you know a couple of things. First, Dr. Boss is still in the area even though she is officially “retired” so do not feel as if you have lost the opportunity to benefit from her wisdom. (Assuming you are still in the Twin Cities.) Also, there has been work done with the MTARP project in the department looking at ambiguous loss/boundary ambiguity in the adoptive context. Look up Deb Fravel’s work (another FSoS grad), for example.
    Great post!

  5. This helps articulate some of my struggles with losing the babies who were placed with us then reclaimed by their mothers (after 2-, 4-, and 112-days). The struggle with mourning the loss of my babies who weren’t mine, who are gone but aren’t dead… Thank you.

  6. I am very interested in learning as much as I can about
    ambiguous loss and also how best to help my children
    process that loss. I have always thought of adoptee
    grief and loss as a hole that no one can fill. I still
    kind of think that is true, and learning more will hopefully
    help me support my children’s emotions. I think being
    able to figure out a balance so that I don’t unintentionally
    mitigate their feelings is very important too.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Jae Ran. My first thought was “ah, there’s actually a term for it”. Reading your post, I can recognize patterns in my own life and wonder how much ambiguous loss plays into them.
    I also decided long ago that I would no longer ignore that elephant. Damn, I had no idea just how big it actually was! I think I’ll look into this one a bit more.

  8. I love finding names and concepts that just Explain Everything and make sense and make them feel like, oh, I’m NOT crazy. Thank you so much for this, Jae Ran.

  9. Wow that makes so much sense. And strikes home.
    For myself, the process of resolving that loss ended up turning into an incredible amount of guilt. Not as an adoptee, but as someone that was taken from his mother nonetheless.
    Thanks much for this. This I think could help anyone understand.

  10. Hello-
    I am the adoptive Mom of a 2 year old little boy from Korea. I am so grateful for this blog and others like it. Sometimes when I read them, I get scared. Not because I don’t want to know the challenges that we will face as a family, but because, the task of managing them is SO VERY IMPORTANT and I really want to get it right. I pray that we do it well, for his sake. I also hope and pray that our son will be able to meet his birthmom some day and be in contact with her. It is his right as a human being. My husband and I have been given the gift of the priveledge of raising this beautiful little boy and for that we are so grateful. I just pray that we manage this incredible gift gracefully. He deserves it.

  11. Pauline Boss’s work is so significant for adoptees. It makes sense of so much with a context of ambiguous loss, both for adoptees and for mothers of loss.

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