Death of a Child Creates Ambiguous Losses

The car crash was bloody. A medical helicopter flew my daughter to the nearest hospital, where surgeons operated on her for 20 hours. Their efforts failed. “I’m sorry,” the lead surgeon said. “As soon as we fixed one problem another appeared. Your daughter is brain dead.” My husband and I made the decision no parent wants to make: We stopped all life support and met with an organ donation representative.

She wore a low-cut blouse, not appropriate dress for the situation, and every time she leaned over to point to something, her breasts were more exposed. It was an odd experience. Today, family members refer to this woman as “Mrs. Bosom.” As time passed, we appreciated our daughter’s planning even more. Thanks to her generosity, two lives were saved and two people can see.

Although I’d experienced grief before, my daughter’s death stunned me. Two days later, on the same weekend, my father-in-law died. About eight weeks later my brother died. Six months later, my former son-in-law died from the injuries he received in another car crash. His death made our twin grandchildren orphans and we became their guardians. Our challenge, the greatest one we ever faced, was to care for the twins, and grieve for family members simultaneously.

Because I’m a non-fiction writer, I turned to my occupation for information and comfort. During my journey I came across the work of Pauline Boss, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Boss did the original research on something called ambiguous loss—unclear, unacknowledged loss that “defies closure.” If you’re the parent of a missing child you are living with ambiguous loss. Family members whose loved ones died on September 11th also live with it, and will do so for the rest of their days.

In her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Boss describes ambiguous losses as “frozen grief.” There are two types of ambiguous loss, according to Boss, physical absence with psychological presence (lack of a goodbye), and psychological absence with physical presence, as with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Ambiguous loss is exhausting. It goes on and on, you don’t know how long it will last, family dynamics may change, there’s a lack of problem-solving, and no closure. You’re on pins and needles and the pain seems unbearable. I found comfort in a Japanese proverb: To endure what is unendurable is true endurance. Bereaved parents like you and me suffer many ambiguous losses. Since I’m a visual person, I sat down and made a list of them.

Loss of a future. My daughter was a composite engineer, earned six special certifications, and an MBA. She managed three production lines in a manufacturing plant, received outstanding reviews, and was assured of advancement in the company. Then she died. I lost a future with her. You have lost a future and worse, family members and friends may not understand your feelings. They may even ask you not to mention your child’s name.

Loss of friends. Grief is off-putting and most Americans don’t like to talk about it. After my daughter died some friends stuck around and others slowly drifted away. Today, in the ninth year of life without my daughter, I am my disabled husband’s caregiver, and more isolated than ever. I try to stay in touch with friends via email and social media, but these aren’t the same as face-to-face meetings.

Loss of a social life. Multiple losses erased my interest in socializing. I remembered something my mother once said: “I want to crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after me.” Like my mother, I wanted to crawl in a hole, stay home, and ponder life. As the years passed, we resumed many of our social contacts. Still, there were days when we felt out of touch. My current caregiving duties make me feel more out of touch.

Loss of purpose. “Who am I now?” is a question I often asked myself. I didn’t know what to say when people asked me how many children I had. While I was raising my twin grandchildren my purpose was clear, to protect, nurture, and love them. My purpose became less clear after the twins graduated from college and found jobs. Finally, I identified two purposes, caring for my husband and writing resources to help others.

Loss of hope. I admit it; I lost hope for a while. Thankfully, the empty feeling didn’t last long. My grandchildren (one boy, one girl) helped me find hope again, and renewed my enthusiasm for the ordinary things of life. In his helpful and hopeful book, Living When a Loved One Has Died, Earl A. Grollman notes that life isn’t fair. “You must find a way to live with an unfair life—to live without the one you loved,” he writes. I learned to do this.

What can you do about ambiguous losses? Start by making a list of your losses as I did. Learn more about this unique form of grief. Talk with others who have experienced ambiguous losses and find out what worked for them. Many grief counselors recommend journaling as a healing step. Believe in yourself, because you’re probably stronger than you think. I love what Martha Beck writes about grief in her book, Following Your Own North Star.

When the compass reads grief, Beck says we need to remember that sadness is a form of healing. She thinks the people who follow the course of grief become stronger, healthier, and have better coping skills. As she explains, “Grief pushes us into ‘deep rest,’ weighing down our muscles, wringing tears from our eyes and sobs from our guts. It isn’t pretty, but it’s nature’s way.” Our children would want us to be happy, and we can let happiness back into our lives today.



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Comments (8)

  • I can hardly agree with your comments that the death of a child creates ambiguous losses!!! I lost my only child, daughter Rebecca four weeks after her 17th birthday. She was admitted in hospital for what was thought to be an ordinary Appenditisis but whenshe was operated, it turned out to be one of the most malignant cancer – Rhapdo Mayo Sarcom – and died 3 weeks later. She was a very lively, active & charming young lady. To say that we were shocked is an understatement!!! Few weeks after her death, I colapsed whilst visiting some friends & spent 4 days in hospital. Luckily, it was nothing serious, only the result of the sudden death of our daughter & shock. During those short days alone in hospital, I had time to take account of our situation & what I intend to do with my life in future. More then ever, my wife is in despairate state & need my support. As the general manager of a travel company, I had great responsibility. I had to take full control of my life. As King David said when his servant told him of his son’s death, he order his servants to prepare his best cloths & prepare his dinner & wine. When his servants asked him why he was acting in this way, he replied: “Whe my son was alive, I prayed & fasted so my son may live, but now that he is gone & he will never return to me, why should I live in grief.”
    This is exactly what I did. For these last 23 years I have lead The Compassionate Friends in Malta and it gives me a lot of satisfaction that I have been helpful to so many bereaved parents. I have tried to find joy in everything I do. I am sure that my daughter is proud of me for the way I have spent these 29 years since her death.

  • Thanks for sharing with us. I lost my daughter, Jennifer, in December 2015 and then my husband, Michael in December 2016. I feel so lost and wonder all the time who I am. I am a wellness educator and try to put forth all my efforts to help people with good nutritional choices. Before my husband died we wrote a book about our daughter who had Cystic Fibrosis and how she lived her life. Her writings are in the book also so that others that have challenges of any kind will never give up! Our book, There Are no Alligators in Heaven, was written to inspire others and show how my courageous daughter lived with this disease. Thanks again

  • I appreciate this article. My sister lost her grandbaby that lived with her. She watches her son suffer the loss of his son. It’s been so difficult. Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, I can relate to all of them. My daughter, my only, died in a car accident in June 2010. She didn’t make it once she got to the hospital and I was never called to a hospital, police officers came to my home. There are so many losses I have and I feel them deeply. It is so hard. Thank you again.

  • I will be attending my first meeting this evening in San Diego. My son passed away Oct.2, 2018

  • Thank you for this helpful insight on ambiguous grief.
    I lost my son 12 years ago after he fell and hit his head while walking alone to a friend’s house after a few beers in college his senior year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. Alone and in the dark, a runner found him the next morning in a ditch by Avila beach. It still haunts me that he died by himself, and had so much to live for at age 22. He was studying for the LSAT and had so much personality and so many friends, and so many people who loved him. Still dealing with the loss and I thank God for the Compassionate Fiends and strong women like you to inspire me.

  • I lost my daughter to drug overdose thisSeptember. She was 20 years old. I am very sad and get lonely late at night if I can’t sleep. Lonely now. My husband is grieving differently and he is getting very angry at me for very small issues. Taking his anger out on me. Need space. Don’t want to be around him. Gets really hard when this happens and is happening now. Feels super lonely to grove alone. Have great support group but not reaching out enough. Pretend to be okand I am not ok at all.

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