Understanding Ambiguous Loss


For nearly seven years now, I have suffered the grief from losing my son in 2004. I have been paralyzed, lost, and trapped in the pain since 2004.

I have grieved, or so I thought. Maybe I didn’t grieve. I really don’t know for sure, since this sort of thing was not part of my plan as a parent.

How does a parent resolve the unfair loss of a child into the system, that occurred because of a custody battle gone wrong, a spiteful spouse, and system failure?  That resolve does not exist. When the wrongs  are never righted there is no resolution, only the what ifs that run rampant. The frustration and anger is never-ending.

 I never knew it was something with a label, “ambiguous loss”.

 Wow.  There is a term for what I feel.  There is a label that is out there and recognized, as something real, and is far greater than I, alone, can overcome.  I can only feel it every day, every week, month, and year, since the loss of my son, as it eats away the inside of my spirit.

People have said to me, “move on” and “get over it” and “yeah yeah its been years, aren’t you past that yet?” or “at least he’s alive out there, he could be dead, ya know…” or one of a million other ‘words of advice’ in their futile attempts to fix me.   Yet I remain stuck, lost, and sad.  

On top of the myriad of emotions I feel as the mother, I often fear that if it feels this intense for *me* at *my age* with *my understanding of life* as an adult –  I CANNOT imagine how it felt to my eight year old son to go through what we went through!!

I don’t want to imagine how it felt for him, but as his mother, I have no choice but to wonder – which makes the impact of my own emotions that much greater.  It’s a horrible cycle that never ends.   There is no resolution, there is no finalizing the pain.

 So…Ambiguous Loss is what its called.  

Lets learn a little about it and how it affects the children in the child welfare system. As if we can even begin to understand how deeply they feel it as children… as if..


Understanding Ambiguous Loss

source: http://www.mnadopt.org

Ambiguous loss is a term that is used to describe the grief or distress associated with a loss (usually a person or relationship) in which there is confusion or uncertainty about that person or relationship.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

1) When the person is physically present but psychologically unavailable. An example of this might be when a child’s parent has a mental health diagnosis or chemical use issues which make them emotionally unavailable to meet the needs of the child, even if that parent is physically present;

2) When the person is physically absent but psychologically present. Examples of this would be when a child does not live with a parent due to divorce, incarceration, foster care or adoption;

Ambiguous loss may overlap with trauma and attachment problems and symptoms may be similar to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A person experiencing ambiguous loss may:

• Have difficulty with transitions or changes;

• Have difficulty making decisions; feeling “paralyzed” or overwhelmed when having to make choices about one’s life;

• Have decreased ability to cope with routine childhood or adolescent losses–not being able to “move on” from a disappointment or loss or feeling “stuck”;

• Exhibit learned helplessness or hopelessness;

• Have depression and/or anxiety;

• Have feelings of guilt.

Ambiguous loss affects adopted children who may think about their birth family, but birth family members and adoptive parents might also experience ambiguous loss. Both birth family members and adopted children may wonder about each other, or may mourn or fantasize about what it would have been like to stay together. Adoptive parents, especially if they adopt after struggles with infertility, may experience ambiguous loss over pregnancies that ended in miscarriages or the loss of the dream of having children biologically.

Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss: Coming to Terms with Unresolved Grief, writes,

“Although the birth mother is more conscious of the actual separation than is the baby given up for adoption… the birth mother is thought about often and kept psychologically present in the minds of both the adoptive mother and the adopted child.”

Consider how much more this loss might be felt by youth who were not separated at birth but lived with the mother or father for months or years before the separation occurred; or the effect of loss on children who experience multiple placements and caregivers.

Each move from a caregiver is one more time a child could experience ambiguous loss over the separation.

It was once thought that a child could not feel loss over the separation from birth family they had never known; however more recent research has shown that adopted youth may in fact grieve over the loss (Grotevant et al, 2000).

Adopted individuals who were able to discuss difficult feelings about the uncertainty and lack of information about birth family with their adoptive family showed less symptoms of ambiguous loss than those whose adoptive families had more closed conversations (Powell & Afifi, 2005).

Some adopted children make up their own story about the circumstances of their adoption or use “magical thinking” to
describe their imagined adoption scenario when they lack information.

Adoptees have described the lack of knowledge about their biological families and reasons for separation as like “a book without the first few chapters” or as “lives written in pencil that can easily be erased.”

Some researchers have found that ambiguous loss often peaks for adopted youth during adolescence when identity becomes part of the teenager’s developmental tasks.

According to Boss,

“. . . the greater the ambiguity surrounding one’s loss, the more difficult it is to master [the loss] and the greater one’s depression, anxiety, and family conflict”

Why is this?

• It is difficult for a person to resolve grief if they don’t know if the loss is temporary or final;
• Uncertainty about the loss prevents a child’s ability to reorganize roles and relationships in their family;
• There is a lack of a clear, symbolic ritual surrounding the loss;

• The lost relationship is not socially recognized or is hidden from others;

• The griever is not socially recognized (this is often the case with birth family, regardless of whether the child was removed voluntarily or involuntarily);

• The circumstances that led to loss are perceived negatively by others.

In the case of a parent’s death, for example, people understand the loss and rituals (such as funerals) help the child understand and provide closure to the relationship with that parent.

However, as Boss writes,

“Existing rituals and community supports only address clear-cut loss such as death.”

When a child is separated from his or her parents due to child protection intervention, relinquishment or abandonment, the parent may be physically absent but the psychological presence may still be very much in the child’s mind. Knowing the parent is out there “somewhere” can be confusing or  anxiety-inducing for the child. They may wonder if they will run into the parent at the grocery store, for example, or wonder if the parent will call them someday.

Also, because adoption is commonly viewed positively as a joyous event in our society, a child may feel confusion or guilt over being asked to be happy that they were separated from their birth family. Extended family members and community may not recognize or understand that adoption is directly related to the loss of  the original birth family.

Suggestions for helping children manage feelings of ambiguous loss:

• Give voice to the ambiguity. Provide a name to the feelings of ambiguous loss and acknowledge how difficult It is to live with this ambiguity.

• Learn to redefine what it means to be a family.

Boss writes,

“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 some ambiguous boundaries.”

• Adopted children need to be given permission to grieve the loss of their family of origin without feeling  guilty

• Help the child identify what has been lost (the loss may not be limited to the actual parent – the loss could also include the membership of that extended family, the loss of the home or town they were born in, the loss of having a family that looks like them, the loss of their family surname, or for internationally adopted youth the loss of birth country and language;

• Create a “loss box.” In her work with adopted adolescents, therapist Debbie Riley guides the youth as they decorate a box in which they place items that represent things they’ve lost. This gives the youth both a ritual for acknowledging the loss and a way for them to revisit the people or relationships in the future.

• Include birth parents and birth family members in the child’s family “orchard” so the child can literally and figuratively place them in their self-narrative “history”

• Sometimes certain events trigger feelings of loss such as holidays, birthdays or the anniversary of an adoption. Alter or add to family rituals to acknowledge the child’s feelings about these important people or  relationships that have been lost.

For example, adding an extra candle representing the child’s birth family on his or her cake may be a way of remembering their part in your child’s life on that day; or even an acknowledgement like “I bet your mom and dad are thinking about you today” recognizes those ambiguous relationships.

• Don’t set an expectation that grief over ambiguous loss will be “cured,” “fixed” or “resolved” in any kind of predetermined time frame.

Explain that feelings related to ambiguous loss will come and go at different times in a person’s life and provide a safe place for the child to express those feelings.

Adults must be mindful of the trauma that accompanies each transition to a different placement or with new caregivers.

It is important for social workers, foster parents and adoptive parents to recognize how ambiguous loss and grief may affect adopted youth – especially as they near adolescence and young adulthood.

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For more information:
Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Pauline Boss, (1999). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 
Ambiguous loss in adolescents: Increasing understanding to enhance intervention. L. Ashbourne, L. Baker & C. Male (2002).
 
This free, downloadable pdf is available at http://www.lfcc.on.ca.
Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. K.J. Doka (2002). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
 
Adoptive identity: How contexts within and beyond the family shape developmental pathways. H.D. Grotevant, N. Dunbar, J.K. Kohler & A.M.L. Esau (2000). Family Relations, 49: 379-387.
 
Uncertainty management and adoptees’ ambiguous loss of their birth parents. K.A. Powell & T.D. Afifi (2005). Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol. 22(1): 129-151.
 
Beneath the mask: Understanding adopted teens. D. Riley & J. Meeks (2006). Burtonsville, MD: C.A.S.E. Publications
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2 responses to “Understanding Ambiguous Loss

  1. I’m not, I was reading this article and then just skipped down, did your son DIE or did you lose custody of him?

    After my divorce my husband made my life miserable. He had the money & the everything. He told our 8 year old son horrible things about me, that hurt him very much. Every time my son was with me he would cry about it. Anyway, in 2006, he killed himself.

    So many of the things you mentioned reminded me of my situation, I immediately assumed your child or children were dead. People telling me to get over it “what’s it been? TWO YEARS? Get over it!” I know my loss is final. If your child is alive and theoretically doing well at this point (even though without you) rejoice. Don’t despair. Sadly, but, truthfully, children are the ones who get over you or me, or the parent they are not seeing.
    Rejoice in their living, because that means you have hope; and that there is a good chance you can be together one day.
    Don’t spend your time locked in a cycle of circling the story through your head over and over. It will destroy you and will freeze you in time, stop you from growing into a person your child will WANT to know; not a bitter resentful dried out husk of what you should be. It’s not wrong to live a life, your life, a good life – even while your child or children are not with you. It won’t make you a bad person to do that. You should look for joy & laughter in your life. Because when you do finally see them again, they will see a warm person they will want to spend time with. If you allow yourself to become insane with grief & bitterness, they will believe all the lies their father told them. Because all you will be able to tell them is how ruined your life became. Nobody wants to hear about that.
    Spend your time thinking about what you will say so that your child won’t resent you in the end; that you did everything you could, but lost in court, and were helpless. That you love them and you are there for them & dearly want to get to know them again. That you wanted nothing more than to be with them every minute of every day & held them in your hearts constantly; that you thought of them on birthdays & christmas.
    You see I don’t have any hope. I do think of my son on those times, but, I won’t ever get the chance to tell him. I would give 1,000,000 lives if I could be in your place. Even if my children didn’t want to see me, at least I would know they were alive and happy.

    Rejoice in that the last time you held your son’s hand, he wasn’t laying in a coffin, okay? I have PTSD, nothing like thinking about that hole in your son’s head to give you a nice flash back. I’ve been paralyzed, guilt ridden, depressed, unable to make decisions; at times unable to even brush my hair, until I just had to cut it off, because it was so tangled. I have no other children and will never be able to have any more. Yet here I am. I still exist, believe it or not, I do laugh and I have experienced joy. With nothing for me back home, I took a chance and left to Sweden; I met someone online, that is almost 2 years ago and I am still here with him. He has 3 sons & I spend my time online, grocery shopping & cooking, watching movies. He doesn’t resent me not working or anything.

    Anyway. Just some advice.

    Like

    • First of all my deepest condolences and gratitude to you for sharing your story. I am very touched, moved to tears, in fact my roommates are as well. I cannot express the emotions you have brought out today. I thank you. Very much. My son is alive, and one day we will be reunited I believe….in the not too distant future….as he will turn 18 in about a year and half.
      For that I AM grateful, and tho the pain of losing so many years of his life, as you so graciously point out, at least I will hopefully have that day to look forward to.
      I wish I could grant you the same hope. I am truly sorry for your loss. M Murphy

      Like

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