Ambiguous loss

I first heard about the concept of ambiguous loss from the podcast “On Being” with Krista Tippett interviewing Pauline Boss. “With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution, whichever word you prefer to use.” This is what the families/relatives of prisoners of war or those with dementia or Alzheimer’s experience. Someone is there, but *not quite* there. We are a culture that likes the finite. The vast majority of stories and movies involve a main character who experiences conflict and then over time, resolves that conflict. It doesn’t matter if the conflict is resolved negatively or positively; the story ends and there isn’t ambiguity about what happened to the characters. There is just an end.

The most difficult stories (and life events) to process are those without resolution. I distinctly remember the story of a woman whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and subsequently moved in with her and her husband. For the husband, his whole relationship with his mother-in-law was marked by Alzheimer’s. Every day, they (the husband and mom with Alzheimer’s) would have the same conversation. Share jokes, talk about the weather, eat breakfast. He liked to do improv comedy and would test his jokes with her – if one failed, she would forget! Alzheimer’s was a reality – not a loss. For the woman, having her mother there – someone with whom she had a lifetime of shared experiences – was entirely different. Her mother was physically there, but mentally was a different person from the strong, amazing woman who raised her. This conflict is played out day after day without resolution. This is ambiguous loss.

Into the dark is podcast that follows the story of Jacob Wetterling, a missing child whose case was not resolved for over 27 years. Although he was abducted in 1989, his body wasn’t recovered until 2016 when his abductor collaborated with authorities as part of a plea bargain and lead them to the site of his rape and murder. For those 27 years, Jacob’s parents searched, created advocacy groups for children’s safety, and even had Jacob’s details on milk cartons (he was one of the original milk carton kids). For 27 years, they experienced this ambiguous loss – never knowing if he would come home or was truly gone for good.

I had the opportunity to hear therapist and author  Esther Perel speak. She shared that she is seeing an escalated number of the symptoms of ambiguous loss in people across the United States today, but interestingly especially from individuals that DON’T have any of the common types of root cause events like the ones above. What is happening?

Esther started asking the audience questions. My answers are in bold.

  • How many people have their phone within 3 feet of their bed? Yes
  • How many people touch their phone before they touch their partner when they wake up in the morning? Sometimes
  • How many people check their email before 7am? Yes
  • Of the parents, how many parents will pull out their phone for a text/email/call when they are playing with their kid? Yes

It feels like we are losing each other because we *are* losing each other. Striving to be constantly connected has caused us to lose out on real connection!

Aziz Ansari’s latest Netflix special “Right Now” reflects how difficult it is to see his grandma who has Alzheimer’s (ambiguous loss), and asks the crowd to remember their last weekend at their parents house:

Think about everything you did. Hone in on your most cherished memory. And when you’ve got your memory, just raise your hand. There’s, like, five hands right now. You know why? ‘Cause we all had the same shitty weekend, okay? I know what you did, ’cause I did the same thing. You show up late on a Friday like, “All right, well, I better unpack my stuff and get to bed.” “All right, we’ll see you in the morning.” Day one done. Then, you wake up early the next day at like… 11:30. go in the kitchen, making coffee. “Oh, you guys got a new coffee machine.” “Yeah, we like it.” Conversation done. The rest of the day, everyone’s on their phones, computers, doing whatever they can to avoid eye contact or any kind of deep conversation. …Just as you’re leaving, one of your parents finally looks you in the eyes. And they’re like, uh, “Is your life okay?” And it never is. But you’re just like, “Yeah!” ‘Cause we’re completely incapable of having a real conversation with these people we’ve known our entire lives. We do this whole song and dance 59 more times… And then they’re dead.

This is modern day ambiguous loss. We are experiencing loss of in our relationships because we are trading off small dopamine hits from likes on social media for real interaction with the people we love. It’s not that smart phones or social media are bad; we have just used them as an excuse to replace our relationships entirely. Someone is there, but not quite there. We are together, without really being together. Like Aniz’s weekend with his parents, the conflict – our story – is never resolved, it plays out day after day and year after year. We know what we lost and still seem unable to make a change. How tragic that the characteristics that the families/friends of prisoners of war, abducted children, and Alzheimer’s experience also marks the way we experience relationships today.

“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” – Esther Perel

How we decide to engage (or not engage) with those around us determines the quality of life we live. Let’s put down our phones today and try to have one more real interaction than we yesterday and connect with those that we love!

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