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24 May 2024

Ambiguous Loss among Military Families

Meet Joe, a 14-year-old starting high school soon. He is a very outgoing kid who loves his family and all things sports. He is preparing to receive his learner’s permit and is excited to start driving. However, his dad is getting ready to leave for a year-long deployment. Joe is starting to feel guilty about wanting to learn to drive, because he wants his dad to be in the passenger seat instead of preparing to be across the world.

Fast forward two weeks, his dad has just left for deployment overseas. Joe and his mom are getting acclimated to their “new normal” while also getting back into the routine of school, studying, and extracurricular activities. When Joe arrives home from his first day of school, he and his mom sit down to call his dad to catch up. Joe talks about his teachers, the classes he is taking, and how he signed up to try out for the Junior Varsity Golf Team. Before his dad deployed, they used to bond over watching golf and playing together whenever they got the chance. Joe believed that signing up for the team would make him feel as if his dad was still here, but instead it caused him to feel depressed and anxious. Joe would much rather his dad be here physically playing golf with him, rather than telling him about it over the phone. Joe may be experiencing a concept known as ambiguous loss.

What is Ambiguous Loss?

Ambiguous loss was a theory first conceptualized by Pauline Boss, a family stress researcher (Boss, 1986). She defined ambiguous loss as an individual being physically present but psychologically absent (Boss, 1999). Ambiguous loss was then categorized into two different subtypes: ambiguous absence and ambiguous presence (Boss, 2002). Within a military family, ambiguous absence can occur when a Service member is physically absent but psychologically present, such as on deployment (Faber et al., 2008). Those facing either type of ambiguous loss may experience behavioral changes (e.g., acting out, emotion dysregulation), changes in their mental health (e.g., anxiety, depression), in addition to conflicts in their relationships (Huebner, 2007).

Joe is beginning to feel distant from his dad because he is so far away. By the time he returns from deployment, Joe will have his driver’s license and improved in playing golf. Joe gets to tell his dad all about these milestones, but they don’t get to experience them together. This has caused Joe to build resentment towards his dad for not being there for him through these big life events.

The opposite of ambiguous absence is ambiguous presence, which is when people are physically present but psychologically absent. For Service members this could occur due to a traumatic brain injury or posttraumatic stress disorder (Boss, 2002). The family member is physically present but might feel as if they are a different person because they are psychologically absent.

A year has finally passed, and Joe’s dad is back from his deployment, but he seems distant, causing a change in their relationship. After several nightmares and increased anxiety, his dad was diagnosed with PTSD. Because of potential triggers, his dad tries to avoid large crowds, causing him to be unable to support Joe at his golf tournaments. His dad is also not as interested in golfing together, preferring to stay at home and sleep. This causes Joe to feel angry, spiteful, and discouraged about their relationship.

Many military families may face ambiguous loss at some point, and it’s important to understand that it can present itself differently depending on the situation. When trying to navigate something as uncertain as ambiguous loss, it is important to understand what it may look like within your family (and yourself) to properly address and cope with it.

Resources on Ambiguous Loss

For our family readers: If you or a loved one are experiencing loss, check out these resources to assist in navigating it and/or locating a provider.

  • Military OneSource: Military OneSource provides support and resources to military families who are grieving. If your grief involves ambiguous loss related to the possibility of losing a loved one (e.g., Missing in Action & Prisoner of War), consider reading more about the resources that are available to you.
  • Ambiguous Loss by Everyday Health: This resource provides nine helpful tips on what to do when coping with ambiguous loss within your life. Some of the coping strategies include spending time with others and knowing that your loss is valid. It is also great for those who are interested in reading more information on ambiguous loss.

For our practitioner readers: Check out these links to better understand and recognize ambiguous loss within your clientele:

  • The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) Ambiguous Loss Resources: NCFR provides a collection of resources including links to online media (e.g. webinars, conference recordings, recorded presentations), scholarly articles from NCFR’s journals, articles from NCFR Report magazine, and papers on theory and research development for ambiguous loss.
  • Pauline Boss Publication List on Ambiguous Loss: This resource includes books available for purchase to learn more about ambiguous loss, Dr. Boss’s scholarly publication list, interviews with Dr. Boss throughout her career, and linked media to news and discussion articles about ambiguous loss.

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