Frequently Asked Questions about Ambiguous Loss:

Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be.

Ambiguous loss confuses families, prevents resolution of the loss, and freezes the grief process, paralyzing couple and family functioning. For more information, please refer to Dr. Boss's books:

  • Ambiguous Loss (Harvard University Press, 1999)
  • Loss, Trauma, and Resilience (Norton, 2006)
  • Loving Someone Who Has Dementia (Jossey-Bass, 2011)
  • Family Stress Management, 3rd ed. (Sage, 2017). Coauthors, Chalandra Bryant, Ph.D., & Jay Mancini, Ph.D

The six guidelines for building the resiliency to live well despite ambiguous loss are detailed in Loss, Trauma, and Resilience and more informally discussed in Loving Someone Who Has Dementia. The guidelines are meant to be used flexibly as needed and involve the following:

  • Finding Meaning
  • Adjusting Mastery
  • Reconstructing Identity
  • Normalizing Ambivalence
  • Revising Attachment
  • Discovering New Hope

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. Catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss include kidnapping and missing bodies due to war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami. More common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one's mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.