Coping with the Suffering of Ambiguous Loss

  • Pauline Boss
Part of the Social Indicators Research Series book series (SINS, volume 56)


This chapter addresses a particular kind of suffering—that of having a family member go physically missing. There is no official proof of being either dead or alive. Remaining family members are immobilized by the confusion, but many live a quality life despite the pain of no closure. The goal here is to provide a better understanding of ambiguous loss, its unique kind of suffering, and the surprising resilience that often emerges despite unanswered questions. Intervention guidelines, now tested for cross-cultural application, are provided.


Suffering Ambiguous loss Unresolved loss Frozen grief Meaning Mastery Identity Ambivalence Attachment Hope Psychological family Cultural differences 


  1. Becvar, D. (Ed.). (2012). Handbook of family resilience. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  2. Bleuler, E. (1911). Dementia praecox oder gruppe der schizophrenien [Dementia praecox or the group of schizophrenias]. Liepzig/Wien: Franz Deuticke.Google Scholar
  3. Boss, P. (1977). A clarification of the concept of psychological father presence in families experiencing ambiguity of boundary. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 39(1), 141–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boss, P. (1980a). Normative family stress: Family boundary changes across the life-span. Family Relations, 29(4), 445–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boss, P. (1980b). The relationship of psychological father presence, wife’s personal qualities, and wife/family dysfunction in families of missing fathers. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 42(3), 541–549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boss, P. (1987). Family stress: Perception and context. In M. Sussman & S. Steinmetz (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and family (pp. 695–723). New York: Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boss, P. (1992). Primacy of perception in family stress theory and measurement. Journal of Family Psychology, 6(2), 113–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Boss, P. (2002). Ambiguous loss: Working with the families of the missing. Family Process, 41, 14–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Boss, P. (2004). Ambiguous loss. In F. Walsh & M. McGoldrick (Eds.), Living beyond loss: Death in the family (2nd ed., pp. 237–246). New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  11. Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma, and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  12. Boss, P. (2014, March 18). The pain of flight MH370 lies in its ambiguity. The Guardian. Retrieved from:
  13. Boss, P., & Dahl, C. M. (2014). Family therapy for the unresolved grief of ambiguous loss. In D. W. Kissane & F. Parnes (Eds.), Bereavement care for families (pp. 171–182). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Boss, P., & Greenberg, J. (1984). Family boundary ambiguity: A new variable in family stress theory. Family Process, 23(4), 535–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Boss, P., Beaulieu, L., Wieling, E., Turner, W., & LaCruz, S. (2003). Healing loss, ambiguity, and trauma: A community-based intervention with families of union workers missing after the 9/11 attack in New York City. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(4), 455–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Boss, P., Roos, S., & Harris, D. L. (2011). Grief in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity. In R. A. Neimeyer, D. L. Harris, H. R. Winokuer, & G. F. Thornton (Eds.), Grief and bereavement in contemporary society: Bridging research and practice (pp. 163–175). New York: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  17. Doka, K. (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. New York: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  18. Eliot, T. S. (1980). The complete poems and plays: 1909–1950. New York: Harcourt Brace.Google Scholar
  19. Faust, D. G. (2008). The republic of suffering. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  20. Feigelson, C. (1993). Personality death, object loss, and the uncanny. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74(2), 331–345.Google Scholar
  21. Fitzgerald, F. S. (1945). The crack-up. New York: New Directions.Google Scholar
  22. Forman, M. H. (Ed.). (1935). The letters of John Keats (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Washington Square.Google Scholar
  24. Frost, L., & Hoggett, P. (2008). Human agency and social suffering. Critical Social Policy, 28(4), 438–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  26. Landau, J. (2007). Enhancing resilience: Families and communities as agents for change. Family Process, 46, 351–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Merton, R. K., & Barber, E. (1963). Sociological ambivalence. In E. Tiryakian (Ed.), Sociological theory: Values and sociocultural change (pp. 91–120). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  28. Mishra, P. (2004). An end to suffering. New York: Picador, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.Google Scholar
  29. Neimeyer, R. A. (2015). Meaning in bereavement. In R. E. Anderson (Ed.), World suffering and quality of life (pp. 115–124). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  30. Neimeyer, R. A., & Harris, D. L. (2011). Building bridges in bereavement research and practice: Some concluding reflections. In R. A. Neimeyer, D. L. Harris, H. R. Winokuer, & G. F. Thornton (Eds.), Grief and bereavement in contemporary society: Bridging research and practice (pp. 403–418). New York: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  31. Neimeyer, R. A., & Sands, D. C. (2011). Meaning reconstruction in bereavement: From principles to practice. In R. A. Neimeyer, D. L. Harris, H. R. Winokuer, & G. F. Thornton (Eds.), Grief and bereavement in contemporary society: Bridging research and practice (pp. 9–22). New York: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  32. Neimeyer, R. A., Harris, D. L., Winokuer, H. R., & Thornton, G. F. (Eds.). (2011). Grief and bereavement in contemporary society: Bridging research and practice. New York: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  33. Reiss, D., & Oliveri, M. E. (1991). The family’s conception of accountability and competence: A new approach to the conceptualization and assessment of family stress. Family Process, 30(2), 193–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Robins, S. (2010). Ambiguous loss in a non-Western context: Families of the disappeared in post-conflict Nepal. Family Relations, 59, 253–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Robins, S. (2013). Families of the missing: A test for contemporary approaches to transitional justice. New York/London: Routledge Glasshouse.Google Scholar
  36. Roos, S. (2002). Chronic sorrow: A living loss. New York: Brunner-Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Saul, J. (2013). Collective trauma, collective healing: Promoting community resilience in the aftermath of disaster. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  38. Sluzki, C. E. (1990). Disappeared: Semantic and somatic effects of political repression in a family seeking therapy. Family Process, 29, 131–143. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1990.00131.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sluzki, C. (2003). The process toward reconciliation. In A. Chayes & M. Minow (Eds.), Imagine coexistence: Restoring humanity after violent ethnic conflict (pp. 21–31). Cambridge, MA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  40. Sluzki, C. E. (2006). Foreword. In P. Boss (Ed.), Loss, trauma, and resilience (pp. xiii–xv). New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  41. White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Family Social Science DepartmentUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations