Relationships in our lives change. Regardless of the circumstances, you may still feel some feelings about how a certain relationship has transformed. These emotions may start to resemble grief, with feelings of tremendous sadness, confusion, or emptiness. This phenomenon is known as ambiguous loss. It describes the feeling of loss without closure. There are two types of ambiguous loss described by Dr. Boss, the originator of the idea: physical and psychological, or Type-One and Type-Two.
Type-one ambiguous loss is physically-based. Dr. Boss describes it as “physical absence with psychological presence.” In other words, there is a possibility that your loved one is or could be alive, but they are apart from you in a physical way. Remember, that because this loss is ambiguous, it is not the same loss as grieving a parent or friend who has recently passed and whose body you can see or assume is in the casket.
Type-one ambiguous loss addresses a physical loss that happens when you’re unsure of if your loved one has actually died or if you know they are alive but you cannot have any contact with them.This separation can be planned or unplanned. For example, a mother of a kidnapped child or a family split into different refugee camps may experience type-one ambiguous loss. This style also includes people presumed dead or left unaccounted-for after natural disasters, wars, and acts of terrorism.
Another style of type-one ambiguous loss addresses loss of contact with a person who you know to be alive. You may even know exactly what is going on with them in their life. You may know the exact address and cellblock of your incarcerated loved one, but they are not easily available to you. This version of type-one ambiguous loss also includes breakups, adoption, military deployment, and immigration separation. You know that these people are still alive and going about their day, but they aren’t fully present in your life in the way you might want them to be.
Type-two ambiguous loss addresses those who are physically present, but psychologically not-there in the way we’d like for them to be, the inverse of type-one. An extremely common version of this exists in long-term couples who have grown distant from one another. They miss the person their partner used to be despite their partner still physically laying in bed with them each night. This is also seen in loved ones with drug addiction, mental illness, or any other mental incapacitation. Their physical bodies remain, but their emotional and cognitive presence is different.
In more recent years, Dr. Boss has begun to address a loss beyond type-one and type-two. This yet-unnamed third type has to do with mass, long-lasting or worldwide events. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many mental health professionals noticed a widespread feeling of loss and frustration from the encounters and energy taken from and experienced during the pandemic. This includes missing out on events, socialization, time with a loved one, businesses forced to close due to pandemic-hardship, or even freedom occupying a crowded space without worry of disease. This can also be seen generationally, such as the effects of systemic racism or apartheid.
If you’re feeling the effects of ambiguous loss or a general sense of dissatisfaction in your life, we can help. At Valued Living Therapy, we offer in-person therapy sessions in the Twin Cities area and via telehealth throughout Minnesota. We are inclusive of all relationships, sexual orientations, and identities, and passionate about helping you make lasting change.