Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
It is the life of paradoxes that craves to lead a happy, blissful and satiated life, yet to many the mere happiness become a far off thing, not to be heard neither to be felt. They find themselves engrossed in the web of grief that becomes most difficult to break and grueling task to resolve, and when the loss is ambiguous, it’s very difficult to bear. Ambiguous loss takes away the soul from the bearer leaving him with emptiness, devoid of any sense of being and belongingness to this world. It is a condition suffered by the people whose near and dear ones are lost, or they are unaware of the situation in which their near and dear ones must be involved into. It is a very perplexing state when a person is physically present but at one stance not there either. (Ashbourne, Baker, Male, 2002)
Pauline Boss, a psychotherapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, first propounded the word Ambiguous loss in her enduring work, “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief” to find out the psychological and emotional crises the people are undergoing when the whereabouts about their near and dear ones are unknown, how they cope up with this situation and what they can do to come out of the crises and join once again in the main stream of the society. It’s a sense of frozen grief which takes into grip the people whose near and dear ones are lost in the wilderness of this world either in War, divorce, abduction or dissertation. When any one close to your heart dies, it is also a matter of grief but at-least a person can reconcile to his or her life because he or she cannot do anything but when the whereabouts of someone is unknown, that period is most difficult to bear. Boss captures these intense and emotional moments of the people and how they are coping with their lives in this enduring work of hers. In a very clear and simple language, she pleads for inner strength and self-endurance.
Boss also appropriately pinpointed or may be exaggerating when she said that those persons who are facing ambiguous loss get addicted to alcohol. She put a strong point and evidence of her own relatives who had to leave their family in Switzerland to move on to Wisconsin in the early years of 1900 but could not return to Europe as the war had taken into its jaws the lives of the millions. Her grand mother was desperate to meet her son in America who could not meet her but was always sending letters to her that started with “My dears” and ended with “May God protect you always. Mother.” When she stopped getting mails frequently owing to World War II, she wrote the most loving letter to the kin of the grandsons, to whom she could not meet during her lifetime. She wrote: “Even if it is not possible to write, I am with you at all times anyway in my thoughts. I am sure you have two big sons by now. I wish I could see them in person.” (Harayda, 2000)
It could also be possible that sometimes the situation of ambiguity in this life of today could become a matter of amusement, reaching even into the corners of the people’s spiritual life. In one of the cemetery in Tokyo there was a mechanical Buddhist priest who had robotic eyes and used to chant sutras each morning for the recently dead. The question that can crop in our mind, “Is a priest absent or present?” (Harayda, 2000)
Boss said that without the knowledge and clear information, even most strong-hearted persons may become ambivalent and are unable to make any day- to-day decisions. They are unaware of the fact that the missing person will be found or not, and they are so struck by grief that their mental prowess get frozen and they are naturally stuck.
Pauline Boss kept the ambiguous losses under two categories. One whose family member is physically absent, but he or she is absolutely psychologically present because he does not know of the fact whether they are dead or alive and poster the examples of soldiers who are missing in the action. The second type of ambiguous loss is one where the person is in state of absolute mental loss though he is physically present but his mind is absent. In the grip of the grief, a person may display anxiety, can go into extreme depression, face somatic or chronic mental illnesses. The stress is un-bearing causing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ambiguous loss for mothers is also notwithstanding formidable too in the adoption cases, when mother has to forgo her child for adoption.
I am an Army Officer and stationed at a hospital, there one-day I witnessed a strange thing that shook my nerves when a wife of one non-commissioned officer was brought in. She was emotionally shaken and her symptoms were showing the signs of chronic mental illness. Her history showed she was a joyous lady before marriage but after marriage to an Army officer changed her life altogether. Her husband was lost in a Gulf war which she could not bear and the ambiguous loss entrapped her heart and soul to such an extent that she got into the fit of chronic mental illness. The crucial aspect of the problem was the way to deal with the situation. The emotional complexities arising out of the loss is the most difficult task to overcome. But it is also true that there is no straight answer or cure to this serious problem that emotionally and psychologically hampers the person. The situation here lies in the naissance of the right answer for this too complex problem and to again revise that answer according to the changed circumstances. The complications arising out of the losses are unbearable. The confusion that arises is due to the ambiguity instead of hopelessness and irresolution, but there is one inherent quality that is so imbibed in us and that’s our own power- our self-realization. This self realization of combined optimism and realistic thinking is a weapon for the self supporting groups, psychologists and psychiatrist to make their patients over come their grief and enable them to involve in the every day lives and in society.
Boss suggested there should be a forum whereby aggrieved persons can express their feelings without any hesitation and can endure the everlasting love. Expressing oneself enables the person to come out of their emotional attachments of their memorable past to some extent but the trauma is unbearable. The necessity is to give different shape to the relationship with your lost ones in your mental and emotional arena and to make this relationship your strong point and your energy to endure in daily activities of your life. The unending pain of losing and the hope of finding again enables the person to refresh the life. While finding out the way to conquer the ambiguous loss, persons had to redefine the relationship in regular intervals according to the circumstances, to remove this situation of ambiguity.
Pauline Boss proposed that to get council or take information is a step further to bring the suffering person to come out of this situation. And its the therapist’s help that brings the people to understand what’s the ambiguous loss is? The book’s strength and the strong words of Pauline Boss echoes the uniqueness in the person’s own individuality that enables the person to emerge out of the loss. She says that time is needed by the people for respite as well as to engage the loss. In the end, Pauline Boss resounds the Franklin words “Man’s Search for Meaning,” saying that all human beings must find new meaning in losses and there are four factors that convey how one can find meaning to losses: Firstly, it comes as heredity and from our social, financial and cultural structure of our family and accordingly we change our rules, roles and rituals for making sense out of the loss: to change the approach from pessimism to optimism: influence of spirituality: our view of the world to see the things around also reflect the way we look at ourselves and the ambiguous loss that we had to endure.
Now, when I again saw that lady after five years, I was surprised. She was looking very beautiful, healthy and full of life. And now she herself took upon the task to help others who are suffering from ambiguous loss and her motto is “Self-motivation”. When she was in hospital, all the therapists tried hard to make her again come back to normal but all their efforts had gone in vain. One day a small girl aged 11 years came to her, the child was suffering from serious ailment, but she was giving a very naughty smile and coxed her to take some sweets, which she had brought for her. This love and smile of a child brought the smile in the face of that lady too, and she started looking at the world from the eyes of the child and from then there was no need for her to take medication. She began to involve herself in the care of other patients in the hospital and slowly recovered from the situation.
This is the force of Pauline Boss’s book. From these life experiences, she explores the best way to handle the devastation that can cause because of losses. Her main approach is to motivate the families to initiate the talks, to get to a consensus about the way to express the grief for the lost ones and to observe and enjoy what remains with them. Her stories of many families who have emerged out of the loss are very insightful and encouraging.
Ashbourne L., Baker L.& Male C. 2002. Ambiguous Loss in Adoloscents: Increasing Understanding to Enhance Intervention. Retrieved from W.W.W: http://www.lfcc.on.ca/ambiguous_loss.pdf
Boss Pauline. 1999. Ambiguous Loss Learning to Live with: Unresolved Grief
Publisher: Harvard University Press.
Harayda J. 2000. ‘Ambiguous Loss’: When someone you love is ‘Physically Present but Psychologically Absent’ Because of Alzheimer’s Disease or Other Factors. Retrieved on October 9, 2007 from W.W.W: http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/18/%e2%80%98ambiguous-loss%e2%80%99-when-someone-you-love-is-physically-present-but-psychologically-absent%e2%80%99-because-of-alzheimer%e2%80%99s-disease-or-other-factors/