What does ambiguous loss mean?

Defining ambiguous loss

You might have seen or read the term ‘ambiguous loss’ and wondered what it means.

A researcher named Pauline Boss developed the concept of ‘ambiguous loss’, naming it 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). 

As humans, we need to find meaning, sense, security and knowledge within situations. We need rituals and finality.  So this uncertainty and lack of information can be traumatic. This is because the loss is not verified in the same way it is with death.

It removes opportunities for closure and resolution, which “freezes the grief process” (Boss, 1999). Thus, leaving you with less ability to cope and emotionally process the situation, or to make decisions.

Family members of a missing person 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.

In the Missing Siblings study, Clark, Warburton and Tilse (2008) add 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).

How do you deal with ambiguous loss?

Ambiguous loss cannot be resolved, but Boss talks of the possibility of creating a ‘natural resiliency’ by learning to adapt and live with unanswered questions.

  • Understanding and acknowledging that you are living with ambiguous loss can be the first step to this natural resiliency.
  • We offer a free telephone counselling service for anyone over the age of 11 who is struggling with a disappearance.
  • Reading about or speaking to others who are in similar situations can help to feel less isolated.
  • Communicating with loved ones and focusing on positive aspects of your life may bring you feelings of happiness and hope.

Get help

We have several resources available online that can help if the feelings described above resonate with you. Our helpline team are also here to talk on 116 000.

Talk to us

Sign up to be a Digital Search Hero

We have launched a regular email so that you can be aware of new missing person appeals and share them far and wide! We are also calling on all Heroes to be the eyes and ears for Missing People on the ground. Your sighting of a missing person could make a difference in a crucial time.