The Missing People helpline is here for you for free, 24/7 if you, or someone you love is missing, on 116 000. You can also read more on this website that are available to families of missing people, including our Family Forum, our Telephone Counselling Service and practical guidance.
Pauline Boss developed the concept of ‘ambiguous loss’, naming this as “the most distressful of all losses”. In relation to missing people she identifies that “a person is physically absent yet psychologically present” (Boss 1999, 2002, 2007). Therefore, the uncertainty and lack of information about an absent loved one is traumatic. The loss is not verified; the natural human need for meaning, sense, security, knowledge, finality and rituals are denied to the family.
There is no ‘closure’ or chance for resolution. People become preoccupied with thoughts about searching for the missing person. The resulting ambiguity “freezes the grief process” (Boss, 1999), often preventing one’s ability to effectively process the situation emotionally, cope or make decisions. “Without information to clarify their loss, family members have no choice but to live with the paradox of absence and presence” (Boss, 2006).
There is ambiguity in terms of social status, where the missing person fits in, both now and in the future. Family members may create their own version of the ‘truth’ about the absent person – or may disagree about this. Friends and neighbours may not understand or know what to say – all areas of life are affected. Some people may reach a level of acceptance; however, the lack of certainty decreases the opportunities for recovery, acceptance and coping.
In the Missing Siblings study, Clark, Warburton and Tilse (2008) support this, adding that, “some participants suggested it took considerable time to recognise what was lost and to make sense of the implications of what had happened.” Some family members have described their ambiguous loss as “leaving without goodbye” (Boss, 2007).
Although ambiguous loss cannot be ‘resolved’, Boss, talks of a ‘natural resiliency’ amongst some people who are able to adapt their experience of the loss to develop an ability to live with the unanswered questions. ‘Ambiguous loss’ underpins many of the current studies, therapeutic models and practices to support families with a missing person.