Pauline Boss on Ambiguous Loss and the Myth of Closure

Recently, I came across the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast. So far, one of the best episodes that I've listened to is Tippett's interview with Dr. Pauline Boss who pioneered the theory of ambiguous loss, which is a loss that lacks resolution, such as a person who disappears or someone who dies under traumatic circumstances like the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11. Ambiguous loss also refers to the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia or can even be applied to the experiences of divorce and immigration.

In her wide-ranging discussion with Tippett, Boss talks about Western society's unwillingness to talk about loss, the myth of closure, and how those living with ambiguous loss can find meaning:
We come from culture in this country of, I think, mastery orientation. We like to solve problems. We're not comfortable with unanswered questions. And this is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts. Somebody's gone, you don't know where they are, you don't know if they're alive or dead, you don't know if they're coming back. And so, that kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we're very uncomfortable with as a society.
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There was one woman after 9/11 who had a newborn, and she was blaming herself because she didn't wake her husband up early enough that morning. He had an alarm clock, and it didn't go off. He was in the Trade Tower usually by 8:00 and out by 9:00. And on this day, he was late, and so he was in the Trade Tower when it went down.
She blamed herself as she was crying. She was at her wit's end. And about a year later — we would meet, by the way, every month or so. About a year later, I complimented her on how lovely her little boy was. He was standing up at that time, leaning on her leg. And she said to me, “Do you remember that story I told you about my husband oversleeping? And that it was my fault?” I said, “Yes, I remember.” And she said, “Well, he always set the alarm clock. And I realized that, finally. And it wasn't my fault. He just wanted another hour to be with us.
Now that's the transformation we're after with ambiguous loss, where she is no longer blaming herself and she has a meaning that she can live with the rest of her life without too much stress.
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We like finite answers. You're either dead or you're alive. You're either here or you're gone. And let's say you have somebody with dementia, or a child with autism, and they're there, but they're not always there. And so once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that that may be the closest to the truth that they're going to get. To say either or, to think in a more binary way — he's dead or he's alive, you're either here or you're gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth, so the only truth is that middle way of “he may be coming back and maybe not.”
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And what we do need to know is that our society as a whole — not just families, but our society as a whole — I think, is afraid of talking about death, and is afraid of talking about suffering, and having people gone lost and grieving for a long time primarily because of this transmission of trauma ancestrally. That we are a nation founded on unresolved grief — as a result, we don't like to talk about death and we don't, for sure, like to talk about ambiguous loss.
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But “closure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you've become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they're lost, you still care about them. It's different. It's a different dimension. But you can't just turn it off. And we look around down the street from me — there's a Thai restaurant where there's a plate of fresh food in the window every day for their ancestors. Are they pathological? No. That's a cultural way to remember your ancestors. And somehow in our society, we've decided, once someone is dead, you have to close the door. But we now know that people live with grief. They don't have to get over it. It's perfectly fine. I'm not talking about obsession, but just remembering.
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There is no such thing as closure. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it's OK. It's OK. And it's OK to see people who are hurting and just to say something simple. “I'm so sorry.” You really don't have to say more than that.

Listen to the full interview with Pauline Boss