Sign In Forgot Password

Ambiguous Loss 

01/12/2022 05:23:03 PM


Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

A question that has weighed heavily with me of late: Is there one thing we can identify as the greatest cause of human suffering? I mean certainly we can point to the terrible moments which take place in life like awful accidents, foreboding diagnoses, tremendous acts of treachery and faithlessness from the closest people in our lives. For me, illness and the death of loved ones are so far at the top of the list. These, like so many of the difficulties we face in life, are not at all in our grasp, we have absolutely no control over what deck of life’s cards we are dealt. But perhaps what makes it all even more difficult– or at least prolongs the pain and agony of these kinds of experiences– is the existential loneliness of not feeling heard. How many who have suffered tremendous harm in their lives may have been able to better cope and heal and move forward if those closest to them didn’t need to impose their own needs first?

Existential angst is on the rise due to Covid, climate change, racial injustice, inflation, and an ever-expanding media market that is as lucrative as it is sensational. As a rabbi doing my very best over the last two years, to minister to the needs of a small congregation, the number of you who have shared this existential angst with me is far greater than during the preceding 19 years of my rabbinate combined.  At the risk of sounding flip, may I suggest that the good news is this angst will outlast inflation? Of that, I am sure! The bad news is that we live in an out-of-control world which resists our human need to impose control upon it. Maybe it always has, but these days the message is driving home hard.

Culminating decades of research, psychologist Pauline Boss developed the theory of “ambiguous loss,” the wisdom of which has much to teach us as we navigate these fraught times. In her recently published book on the subject, Boss writes: 

Ambiguous loss is a situation that's beyond human expectation. We know about death: It hurts, but we're accustomed to loved ones dying and having a funeral and the rituals. With ambiguous loss, there are no rituals; there are no customs. Society doesn't even acknowledge it. So, the people who experience it are very isolated and alone, which makes it worse. (1) 

She asks and attempts to answer the question, “How do we live in a world that seeks closure when, at times, there is no closure to be found?” We must ask this question…

…as we mourn the hundreds of thousands of people who have died of Covid…alone and grieve with the millions of loved ones who couldn’t say goodbye; 

…as we come to terms with a new reality where zones in our public life, formerly presumed to be safe and apolitical, have become dens of extreme politics, mistrust, and plain bullying;  

…as we learn to live in a world which deters us from public interaction, pushing us closer to the more familiar and causing us to be less and less open to difference.

 Ambiguous loss, as Boss describes it, is “loss without facts.”  It is an essential element embedded in human life, and it has become magnified in our day.  And yet, what makes this even more painful, is our human need to categorize and control the responses.  We desperately want there to be closure.  As Boss teaches, “closure” is fine for the sale of a car or a house, but it is an almost impossible expectation when the loss and tragedy which visit us do not follow any notion of an expected pattern. 

So how do we live in the face of all of this?  By re-framing our expectations.  The tragedy of loss is made worse when we cannot find our own way forward.  And yes, this is where each one of us comes in.  Aware or unconscious, our responses to those close to us who have suffered/are suffering a terrible loss, too often seek to impose our own needs for closure upon the one for whom it is perhaps impossible, or at least, untenable for the time being.  “Closure” is not one of the multiple choices available to us when we are faced with this ambiguous loss.  We want people to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and “get on with it.” We want them to live their lives, moving forward.  Mourn, grieve, remember, and move on.  But this isn’t always possible, and it is most certainly not often available to them the way we would presume. 

Two years into a pandemic, our world has shifted. The institutional and general dysfunction which preceded February 2020 is that much more pronounced.  One out of every 100 senior citizens in the United States has died from Covid. (2)  We are not the same, nor should we believe we can be.  Our approaches to care and concern, repair and refocus, loving and being loved, can be renewed simply with, “I’m so sorry” upon hearing awful news.  Staying present, resisting our own need to escape from the “contagion” of another’s tragedy, creating space for the one who suffers to catch her breath and speak. It’s time to stop talking a bit.  It’s time to stop advising a bit.  It’s time to stop recommending. Instead it's time to sit, and let our presence be the gift that affirms for those who grieve that indeed they are not alone.





Mon, November 28 2022 4 Kislev 5783