Not knowing if your loved one is alive or dead absent or present, knowing or needing you is painfully traumatic. It is the suffering faced when soldiers are missing in action, thousands of bodies vanished after 9/11, a child is kidnapped, a partner is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and most recently, it is the anguish facing thousands of Japanese people as they search or wait for news of loved ones.
In my work with couples and families after 9/11, their inability to verify the death of loved ones created longing, hopes and often complicated grieving. At the beginning, many held off on funeral services, children refused to believe that Daddy wasn’t coming home, some went to psychics, many had a similar dream –“The doorbell rings and she/he is back – looking like they once did. ‘Where have you been?’ The dreamer is relieved and overjoyed … then wakes.”
It was never easy but most found the resiliency to move forward again. How? How do you cope with unresolved loss?
Pauline Boss, who has worked for years with those whose loss has no finality, identifies this as ‘Ambiguous Loss’ in her 2006 book Loss, Trauma and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. She underscores that in these cases traumatic loss is intensified by fear, confusion, immobilization and a lack of closure.
Drawing upon Pauline Boss’s valuable contributions, here are some ideas for caring for yourself, your partner and others in the face of such loss:
Connection vs. Closure
In the face of unverified or ambiguous loss, people often feel persistent emotional pain because they can not get closure- there is no known end, no body to bury. An approach that fosters healing is to seek connection instead of closure.
Whereas unresolved traumatic loss often isolates, connection with others who share a similar pain recreates a sense of belonging. For the couple with a missing child, those waiting to hear of lost relatives, those coping with Traumatic Brain Injury of a partner, being with others who have faced such suffering offers a place to bear witness to the fear, anger and grieving. There is a normalizing of reactions and a reduction of feelings of shame and …