Mental Health

Pauline Boss and Ambiguous Loss

Sometimes closure means no closure at all

If there is any ideal form of loss, it is one with complete closure. But for many, this is not the case. From missing persons to loved ones with dementia or divorce, we all can encounter this type of loss in a variety of ways and knowing about it is the first step to healing from it.

About Dr. Pauline Boss

Dr. Boss holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and Family Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Following a teaching career at the same university she joined the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota in 1981.

Boss then took the position of Visiting Professor at Harvard Medical School and received the Moses Distinguished Professor award at Hunter School of Social Work in New York City.

She mainly works with families and individuals across many different cultures to help them move forward after suffering from ambiguous loss.

Boss has several published books including: Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss, and Loving Someone Who has Dementia.

What is Ambiguous Loss?

In the 1970s, Dr. Boss created the term ambiguous loss means a loss without closure. You can lose people physically, mentally, or emotionally this way.

The Two Types

There are two types of ambiguous loss and most people encounter one during their lives.

The first type is when the person lost still lives in your memory and is with you psychologically, but physically they are gone. Examples of this could include missing persons from various tragedies, divorce, or loss of contact through immigration.

The second type of loss is when the individual is not present psychologically but still is physically there. Including Alzheimer’s patients, those suffering from addiction or depression or illogical deaths involving children or suicide.

Ambiguous Loss
Image via On Being

Six Guidelines

Boss teaches of six flexible steps in order to come to peace with such losses: finding meaning, adjusting mastery, reconstructing identity, normalizing ambivalence, revising attachment, and discovering new hope.

  1. Finding Meaning
    • Define what this situation means to you. Separate the negative from positive and focus on the latter. Identifying the issues within grief helps healing from it. The meaning of this type of loss is often that is has no meaning at all.
  2. Adjusting Mastery
    • We strive to control everything in our lives to the best of our ability and ambiguous loss takes this out of our hands completely. While you cannot control the loss at hand you can control your reaction to it and involving yourself in helpful practices such as meditation or exercise.
  3. Reconstructing Identity
    • Following a confusing and massive loss, our identities are shaken. You must re-establish who you are independent of this person. Don’t isolate yourself or resist the change.
  4. Normalizing Ambivalence
    • Anger is natural and so is the subsequent guilt. Deal with these emotions as they come and observe them.
  5. Revising Attachment
    • It is possible to let go of the past while still treasuring it. You can miss what was lost while also being grateful for what you still have. Practice presence when with your loved ones.
  6. Discovering New Hope
    • Redefine and reshape the loss into something beneficial. Help others in similar situations or simply just think of new ways to establish hope.

These guidelines, however, are not meant to be gone through linearly. Just as ambiguous loss lacks pattern so does our grief when dealing with it.

These losses are often much more difficult to deal with because there is no closure and therefore no meaning that can be taken from the loss.

It takes much longer for individuals to move on from ambiguous losses, if they ever do. So if you or a loved one is experiencing this, practice patience with them and yourself.

Resources and Help

If you or a loved on is suffering from an ambiguous loss know that you are not alone. There are plenty of individuals who have suffered similarly and even more who are willing to help you.

To learn more about ambiguous loss and resources to contact visit Project We Forgot and

Cover image via MPR News


Also published on Medium.

Sarah is a sophomore studying journalism at the University of Miami. She...