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  • Miriam Green

Ambiguous Loss


We’ve had mixed experiences on our visits with Mom this past week. It is difficult to connect with her from a distance. She’s sitting right there and yet just out of our reach. We are blocked by a table and the requisite two meters of separation. In the past we could go for a walk together or clap hands or touch in other ways. Now, Mom sits in her chair and we sit in ours, and we try to keep her attention.

I did manage to turn Mom’s grumpy mood around this week, but she also closed her eyes and wove in and out of sleep. At one point, I could see her head slowly nodding to the song I was singing. Mostly, though, I kept wondering what the point of my visit was.

When my dad came home from his visit, he was as frustrated as I’d ever seen him. He also questioned the value of visiting.

We spoke quietly together about how to proceed. Our first priority is to keep her safe and healthy. Given that this coronavirus may be with us for a long time, we must adapt to the changing rules that have developed to ensure this. Our goal is to see Mom and keep her brain and memory active. We want to make sure she’s ok, and if possible, connect with her during our brief visits. Though she asked who I was—and rudely told me that she did not want to see me again—she also said, “I love you,” as she was wheeled back inside the facility. I took that as a win.

It is hard to remove our own feelings from this equation, because it is so easy to become frustrated by the circumstances of our visits. But that’s what we must do. Our focus must be on Mom and on the few minutes of interaction that we may—or may not achieve—by visiting.

I learned a new term this week that I believe sums up our feelings perfectly: we are suffering from ambiguous loss. This is a term for loss that has no closure, that complicates and delays the process of grieving. The most extreme examples of this are families of kidnappings or crimes where a body has not been found; women (and men) who experience miscarriages or terminated pregnancies. These are ambiguous physical losses. Ambiguous psychological loss includes a loss where a person is still physically there but is psychologically absent. Families of Alzheimer’s—and even the Alzheimer’s sufferer herself—are clearly in this category.

What do you do when you suffer from unresolved grief? One possible way to overcome an ambiguous loss is through resilience. The grief in an ambiguous loss differs from the stages of linear grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—as there is little pressure to move forward or achieve closure. Closure allows a grieved person to move forward. There is no closure in ambiguous loss. And perhaps it shouldn’t be sought after. Instead, we must develop ways to cope, to remain resilient, to hope in a better future.

Does it help to name how I feel? I think so. I hope so. Now, if we can get back to achieving our goal, it will be enough.



Sometimes I look for the hardest, most complicated recipes I can find to keep myself occupied. Other days, well, the easier the recipe the better. Here's one of those easy ones. A sweet and tangy chicken dish that is all-consuming only in the eating.

Honey Garlic Pan Chicken

This recipe originally called for only chicken breast cutlets, but I also made thighs and legs. They take longer to cook but are as satisfyingly tasty as the breasts.

8-9 chicken pieces

½ cup flour (for dredging)

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/3 cup date honey

2 Tbsp soy sauce

1½ Tbsp white vinegar

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp ginger, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Dredge chicken pieces in flour and cook in a large non-stick pan in a small amount of olive oil. For thighs and legs, cook five to ten minutes covered until the top of the chicken begins to change color. Turn and cook for another five to ten minutes. For breasts, cook two to three minutes each side. Remove to a holding dish. Mix sauce ingredients. When all the chicken is cooked, return to pan and pour on sauce. Turn chicken to ensure both sides are covered in sauce. Bring sauce to a low simmer and cook for an addition two minutes. Serve on plate and drizzle over remaining sauce.

* The term “ambiguous loss” was first used by Pauline Boss, a researcher who studied families of soldiers who went missing in action and coined the term in the late 1970s.


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