Navigating Loss Without Closure
Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” and invented a new field within psychology to name the reality that every loss does not hold a promise of anything like resolution. Amid this pandemic, there are so many losses — from deaths that could not be mourned, to the very structure of our days, to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers and plans and dreams. This conversation is full of practical intelligence for shedding assumptions about how we should be feeling and acting as these only serve to deepen stress.
Pauline Boss is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Loving Someone Who Has Dementia, and Loss, Trauma and Resilience.
Krista Tippett, host: You could say of 2020 that we are suddenly in a world of “ambiguous loss.” Pauline Boss coined this term, and invented a new field within psychology, to name the reality that every loss does not hold a promise of anything like resolution. In this year of pandemic, there are so many losses, many now just settling in — from deaths that could not be mourned, to the very structure of our days, to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers and plans and dreams. When I spoke with Pauline Boss about her groundbreaking wisdom in 2016, she illustrated it with ambiguous life changes like illness, divorce, and aging. Those too are still happening right now. So we offer up this conversation anew, full of practical intelligence for shedding assumptions about how we should be feeling and acting that actually deepen stress precisely in a moment like this.
Pauline Boss: We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions. And this is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Pauline Boss introduced “ambiguous loss” in her 1999 book of that title. Now an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, she is called in for counsel by families, corporations, governments, and NGOs across the world, including throughout this year’s pandemic. She grew up in a first-generation Swiss American immigrant family in Wisconsin.
Tippett: Here’s a line I found in your writing. I would say this is also a description of spiritual background and, I think, a bridge to the work you’ve ended up doing. You said, “Homesickness was an essential part of my family’s culture.”
Boss: It was. I think it may be true for all immigrant families, but it certainly was for mine. And it was even in the village because there were many immigrant families there. So it became a sort of pathos that would be in the family when we weren’t even aware of it, except that I could see the sadness periodically, like when my father would get a letter from Switzerland, or worse yet, a letter with a black rim around it, which meant announcement of death in the family. So I was always aware that there was another family somewhere and that there was some homesickness. Except, where was home? I figured that home was in Wisconsin where we lived. Yet I knew he had this other family across the Atlantic that he pined for. My maternal grandmother was the same. Of course, she refused to learn English. She said she lost her mountains, she lost her mother, she lost her friends, and she wasn’t going to lose her language. So I think that, too, is not unusual for immigrant families today, especially the elders.
Tippett: One thing reading that about your family made me reflect on is that we talk a lot about immigrants, right? Especially now. We even talk about things like people sending money back to family. But we don’t kind of acknowledge the grief or that homesickness or that sadness, that loss that must always be there, even when people have made a choice to go far away.
Boss: I think that’s part of our American culture that we don’t want to hear that. We don’t just deny death in our culture; I think we deny ambiguous loss that comes with things like immigration. Homesickness comes along with that, and we really want people to get over it. And they don’t. In fact, it’s paradoxical. The more you want people to get over it, the longer it will take for them. And why not remember your former country, your former island, your former culture while you’re learning to fit into the new one? In other words, having two cultures is what it ends up being. You have one foot in the old, and one foot in the new. One can live that way. That may be the most honest way to do it.
Tippett: What’s interesting to me is the way you started thinking about ambiguous loss. You started with this idea of father absence. You would eventually call this kind “type-two ambiguous loss,” which is, somebody’s here, but they’re not here. We’ll talk some more about these different forms of ambiguous loss and especially this one.
The type-one ambiguous loss that eventually became the other kind of foundation of the field is — I also very much like the stuff on news headlines — so there’s this type of ambiguous loss, which is physical presence and psychological absence, which would also be dementia or mental illness where people incrementally disappear. But there’s also physical absence and psychological presence. So, the person disappears. For me to think about you coining this term in the 1970s and thinking about the MIAs of the Vietnam War — missing in action. I remember growing up in those years. We all wore these bracelets, right, or you had the name of someone? And I think, as a child, being aware of how completely traumatizing that was but probably not understanding that trauma — it’s in these kinds of great disasters where you’ve been called in to help people — with the Red Cross, like that tsunami where people get swept away.
Boss: I didn’t intend that.
Tippett: Yeah. You mean when you started out?
Boss: Not at all. I’m not a first responder. I’m not even brave, and I’m not good in the field. But when I was studying this psychological absence, and I gave my first paper on that as a graduate student, the military was in the audience, and they said, “If you would reverse this and study physical absence, we would have data for you on the families of the missing in action soldiers in Vietnam.”
Tippett: They had experienced that trauma of people not being able to say goodbye, not being able to bury their dead.
Boss: Yes. And it was the military from The Center for Prisoner of War Studies in San Diego who recognized that. They said I had a theory, and they had data, and could we get together? I was going to write my dissertation on psychological father absence, so that got dropped. Instead, I wrote it on physical father absence, because at that time, the MIAs were all male. That took me down this road of more disastrous kinds of losses outside the home, and the rest is history.
Tippett: Yeah. [laughs] And maybe it’s just because I’ve been aware of your work and in this on and off conversation with you. I feel like these kinds of events are just that much more in our cultural imagination.
Boss: They are.
Tippett: The Malaysian airplane that disappears without a trace — maybe it’s also because the cameras are ever-present, and we see that these people, these family members, cannot find peace.
Boss: I think it’s personal too. We come from culture in this country of, I think, mastery orientation. We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions, and this is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts. Somebody’s gone. You don’t know where they are. You don’t know if they’re alive or dead. You don’t know if they’re coming back. That kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we’re very uncomfortable with as a society. So I think we’re taken to this idea that we see in the paper all the time. It’s not always called “ambiguous loss,” but I think those ideas pull people in because of the helplessness of it, so we say, “Thank God it’s not me.”
[music: “Tetra” by Matt Kivel]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in a moment of civilizational grief and disorientation, we’re revisiting my 2016 conversation about “ambiguous loss.” Pauline Boss created this field in psychology and family therapy.
Tippett: One thing that you say is that the kind of grief that’s involved in ambiguous loss is distinct from traditional grief. How is it different?
Boss: Yes. With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution, whichever word you prefer to use. Therefore, it ends up looking like what the psychiatrists now call “complicated grief.” That is, in fact, a diagnosis, complicated grief. It’s believed that it requires some kind of psychiatric intervention.
My point is very different, that ambiguous loss is a complicated loss, which causes, therefore, complicated grief. But it is not pathological. Individually, that is. It’s not a pathological psyche; it’s a pathological situation. As clients frequently say back to me, “Oh, you mean the situation is crazy, not me?” That’s exactly what I mean.
It’s an illogical, chaotic, unbelievably painful situation that these people go through who have missing loved ones, either physically or psychologically. And if they have some symptoms of grief that carry on, let’s say, even for five or ten years, if it’s a caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient or the parent of a missing child, there is nothing wrong with them. That is typical. That is to be expected that they would grieve along the way for the various things that they are missing. For example, if a child is kidnapped, they may have an extra grief when this child’s friends are graduating or when this child’s friends are marrying or having their first job or going away for college. The grief is long term. It is chronic grief. Yes.
Tippett: I worked, when I was in divinity school, as a chaplain on an Alzheimer’s ward. I remember watching people come to see their loved one, their spouse, their grandmother, their sister. And I remember, as this person who just wandered in and was there to care about people and care for them, I would be so impatient with how people would be so upset when they came in and this person didn’t remember their name. Over time, I got so much more compassionate about that because I realized that the stress, the difficulty — because it was like an incremental death. Right?
Boss: That’s exactly right. It’s an incremental death.
Tippett: So every time they came, there was a little bit more gone. And yet, it’s this person who looks the same. It is this monumental struggle for people to peacefully inhabit this reality that this person they love is, as you say, there and not there.
Boss: Both here and gone.
Tippett: But then the other thing that I think we observe culturally, and I guess this is the corollary to it, is, I feel like it’s kind of mysterious how important it is for human beings to bury their dead.
Boss: Yes, it is.
Tippett: Right? How do you understand what that is in us as a species?
Boss: I don’t know if it’s so important to bury our dead, but I think it’s important for us to know where the body is.
Tippett: Right. To have a body.
Boss: Then we get some mastery by having which rituals we want and burying them where we want or how we want, whether it’s scattering of ashes or a burial in the ground. I think that’s very important. We need some control when we lose someone like that. But I think it also has to do with attachment. People want to come back to touch base with where this body is, or where the symbol of this body is. People of the missing, of course, come back to the memorials, like the 9/11 memorial or the ones in Japan after tsunami or wherever around the world, Holocaust memorials.
Tippett: That those touch those places, that need, in us.
Boss: Yes. They’re helpful in place of a burial site. People who don’t know where their loved ones are really, really need memorials. They play a very great function in our psychological well-being.
Tippett: It’s from you that I’ve learned that, to the extent that we have a cultural vocabulary of grief, it was very much formed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her delineating the five stages of grief in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s from you I’ve learned that, in fact, she never meant for those stages of grief to be taken on the way we’ve taken them on, which is that when we encounter any grieving person or any person’s loss, even the more traditional forms of loss, we think that’s kind of a prescription for what they go through, and then they get to the end.
Boss: That’s part, again, of a culture of mastery, a culture of problem solving and wanting to move on with things. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross found those five stages to be relevant to people who are dying, who are fading into death.
Tippett: Not someone who’s at the loss end of that death.
Boss: No. She did not mean that for the family members. But, in fact, it blurred over into that, and I don’t know if that was her, or I think it was more so her followers. Today, the new research in grief and loss does not recommend linear stages. We like linear stages, though. The news media really likes it because, in fact, it has an ending. It has a finite end. If you start with stage one, and you move on through stage five, you’re done.
Tippett: You’ll finally get to acceptance.
Boss: You’re no longer grieving. Well, we now know that this is not true and that human beings live with grief and, in fact, are able to live with grief. They don’t have to get over it. They don’t obsess with it five years down the road, but they occasionally remember and are sad or go to the grave or have some thoughts about the person who died. And this is normal. So we now know that living with grief is more oscillations of up and down. Those ups and downs get farther apart over time, but they never completely go away, the downs, of feeling blue, of feeling sad. In order to understand this, though, we have to make a difference between depression and sadness.
Tippett: Right, to say that sadness is not depression.
Boss: So far, that hasn’t been made. [laughs] Depression is an illness that requires a medical intervention. It’s the minority of people who have depression. And yet, with the ambiguous loss of, let’s say, Alzheimer’s disease and 50-some other dementias, caregivers are said to be depressed. Most of the caregivers I have met and studied and treated are not depressed; they’re sad. They’re grieving. This should be normalized. Sadness is treated with human connection.
Tippett: One of the things that you say — and this makes so much sense, but it’s the kind of thing that makes sense — we have to say it — that people can’t cope with the problem until they know what the problem is. You’ve said with ambiguous loss that once people have a name for it, just that, that the stress level goes down a bit.
Boss: That helps. Yes. I learned that by doing it the first time. That is, when you say to people — for example, after 9/11, we were working with the families of the workers who cleaned the Trade Towers and ran the elevators and ran the air conditioning and the windows on the World Restaurant. Many of them did not speak English, so we had to translate. And my beginning was this: “What you’re experiencing is ambiguous loss because your loved ones are still missing. It is the most difficult, most stressful loss there is. But it is not your fault.” That’s all I would say before the translators took over, and the people understood that and felt relieved. After a traumatic event, most people blame themselves. Even if it’s a tornado, by the way. I’ve seen this.
Tippett: You mean they find ways to think that they were responsible for what happened?
Boss: Yes, exactly. There was one woman after 9/11 who had a newborn, and she was blaming herself because she didn’t wake her husband up early enough that morning. He had an alarm clock, and it didn’t go off. He was in the Trade Tower usually by 8:00 a.m. and out by 9:00 a.m. On this day, he was late, and so he was in the Trade Tower when it went down.
She blamed herself as she was crying. She was at her wit’s end. We would meet, by the way, every month or so. About a year later, I complimented her on how lovely her little boy was. He was standing up at that time, leaning on her leg. And she said to me, “Do you remember that story I told you about my husband oversleeping and that it was my fault?” I said, “Yes, I remember.” And she said, “Well, he always set the alarm clock. I realized that, finally. It wasn’t my fault. He just wanted another hour to be with us.” Now, that’s the transformation we’re after with ambiguous loss, where she is no longer blaming herself, and she has a meaning that she can live with the rest of her life without too much stress.
Tippett: You’ve said that dialectical thinking, paradoxical thinking, helps. I think that’s an example of that. But explain what you mean by that. Again, I think that’s not necessarily instinctive for us as creatures and certainly not in moments when we’re stressed.
Boss: Yes. I think it might be a more Eastern way of thinking, actually. But, yes, the only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. These are some examples: With the physically missing, people might say, “He’s gone, he’s probably dead, and maybe not,” or “He may be coming back, but maybe not.” Those kinds of thinking are common, and it is the only way that people can lower the stress of living with the ambiguity. Children learn it rapidly, and even adults learn it. It doesn’t take too long. It is not part of our culture, however.
We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone. And let’s say you have somebody with dementia or a child with autism, and they’re there, but they’re not always there. So once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that that may be the closest to the truth that they’re going to get. To say either/or, to think in a more binary way — he’s dead or he’s alive, you’re either here or you’re gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth. So the only truth is that middle way of “he may be coming back and maybe not.”
Tippett: I see. So that the inclination that we have, even culturally, is — Americans are such fighters, right? So they’ll say, “Well, we will solve this mystery. I will find them. We will find a cure.” Right? Or, on the other hand, as friends or colleagues, we kind of want people to get over it, right? Or even as people we love. We love this person, and we want them to get over it because it feels like they’re kind of choosing pain, I suppose.
Boss: And we don’t like suffering. It’s a more Eastern idea that suffering is part of life. Our idea is that suffering is something you should get over — and, as you say, cure it or fix it or find some solution for it. That’s a good thing, by the way. It is probably what has made our society great and has made technology so wonderful and cures for diseases and so on. I don’t want to put that down at all. But here’s the crux: Now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution. Now and then, there are problems that don’t have a perfect fix. And then this idea of holding two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time is very useful for stress reduction.
Tippett: I think one of the questions that is on many people’s minds when you have this conversation is, “What do you know about what’s the best way to react?” I was listening to you on a call-in show. People would call in, and everybody had such a unique story. I remember a woman whose brother, I think, went hiking and just never came back. It was a wilderness area, and they never found his body. It was a decade ago. I listened to you listening to her, and the question you asked was, “How long has it been?” It was 10 years, 14 years. I think that might be a question that, in normal interactions, one might be embarrassed to ask or feel like that would take them back or something. So you asked that, and she answered it. And then you just said, “I am so sorry.”
Boss: I remember that. There’s really nothing else to say. And I think we could help each other in society to learn how to speak to people who have missing loved ones. I think it’s perfectly good to ask them, “How long has it been?” Because they want to tell you how long it’s been, and sometimes it’s been decades. For example, with the Holocaust and slavery, shall we go back, and Civil War, and with the Native Americans, and any genocide throughout the world, it can be a hundred years, and they still remember it. So it’s OK to say, “How long has it been?” And then to say probably the only honest thing you can say, if you feel it, and that is, “I’m sorry.” We can’t fix it, you see. We can’t fix it.
[music: “The Hungry Years” by Lowercase Noises]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Pauline Boss. And I’m pleased to say that you can find a companion conversation with her in the On Being podcast feed this week. It’s our latest episode of Living the Questions — I touched base with her about ambiguous loss and the year 2020. Find that at onbeing.org or wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “The Hungry Years” by Lowercase Noises]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring complicated grief, the myth of closure, and learning to hold the losses in our midst, with the esteemed family therapist and clinical psychologist Pauline Boss. She created the field of “ambiguous loss.” I spoke with her in 2016.
Tippett: It’s so interesting how there’s this whole new field now of epigenetics, of how trauma transmits itself generationally and the way future generations — not so much as an exact memory, but as a response that is conditioned by the trauma that actually happened to previous generations. And then recently, as I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up with a father who was adopted, who had this loss of memory. But thinking about how that affected me and the family indirectly — I’m just curious about how you see that kind of loss that happened to previous generations — how you see that turn up and how you work with that.
Boss: I think there is a generational transmission of trauma regarding ambiguous loss. Drew Gilpin Faust wrote the book This Republic of Suffering.
Tippett: She was the president of Harvard? But she’s a psychologist originally?
Boss: She’s a historian. She makes the point that our republic, our country, was founded on unresolved loss because of the Civil War and all the tragedy that happened there, and that many of these bodies never came home, and so on. So it was not really resolved in the usual way, and as a result, our republic is founded on suffering.
I think she pretty much leaves it there, but I would carry it further by saying it wasn’t just the Civil War. It was slavery. It was the uprooting of the American Indians. It was all the immigrants that have come since then. And every genocide that has happened worldwide — creates a society of suffering that is ancestral suffering that passes down through family patterns and family processes. Sometimes we don’t even know.
After the Holocaust, for example, the first generation didn’t speak of it. Many times, the traumatized first generation doesn’t speak of it. The soldiers are that way too. Then the second generation wonders why and are angry at their parents. It may be the third generation, the grandchildren, who finally get the answer.
Tippett: Of what happened.
Boss: Of what happened and why grandpa is the way he is or why grandma is the way she is. The story finally comes out, perhaps because the grandparent is now approaching old age and thinks they better share the story while they still can. Even when the stories aren’t told, however, there’s a transmission of the trauma by, let’s say, having a parent who is not expressive, a parent who doesn’t speak much, a parent who can’t show love or emotion, or a parent who may have been brutalized who then passes on the violence. There’s a lot we don’t know about what happens when this is transmitted. What we do need to know is that our society as a whole — not just families, but our society as a whole, I think, is afraid of talking about death and is afraid of talking about suffering and having people gone lost and grieving for a long time primarily because of this transmission of trauma ancestrally. We are a nation founded on unresolved grief. As a result, we don’t like to talk about death, and we don’t, for sure, like to talk about ambiguous loss.
Tippett: One person you refer to often is Viktor Frankl. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, which many people have read. And of course, he was writing out of this example of horrific violence and loss and ambiguity and yet insisting on acknowledging the horror of that, right?
Boss: He did.
Tippett: Letting that be true forever and also insisting that meaning can be found.
Boss: Yes. And he was the one who said, without meaning there is no hope, but without hope there is no meaning. He tied those together. What we know now is that the search for meaning is critical in situations of loss, clear or ambiguous, and in situations of trauma. This is very difficult. For example, if a child dies, or if a child commits suicide or is murdered, or if a loved one disappears at sea — it’s nonsensical. But my point is, that too is a meaning. The fact that it’s meaningless is a meaning, and it always will be meaningless.
Tippett: Say some more. What do you mean?
Boss: If something is nonsensical, totally without logic, without meaning, as many of these terrible events are, then I think we have to leave it there. But I think we have to label it as “It’s meaningless.” I can live with something meaningless, someone might say, but what I’ve found is, as long as I have something else in my life that is meaningful.
Tippett: The search for meaning stays vital, but you don’t necessarily locate the meaning in that terrible thing. You have to find the meaning elsewhere in your life and let that be good enough.
Boss: Exactly. I like that term, “good enough,” Krista. In fact, I wrote a chapter on “good enough.” We really have to give up on perfection, of a perfect answer. There are a lot of situations that have no perfect answer. So let’s say the mother of a kidnapped child may then, in fact, devote her life to helping prevent other children from going missing. You see that all the time, where people who have terrible things happen to them then transform it into something that may help others. That’s a way of finding meaning in meaninglessness.
Tippett: You’ve even started talking — I think the writing you’re doing now, and I feel like what is absorbing you now, is really — the phrase you’re using is “the myth of closure.” That in fact, I don’t know when that word got inserted into our vocabulary — maybe you can speak to that — but that that word has led us astray.
Boss: I believe that. I think “closure,” though, is a perfectly good word for real estate and business deals, so I don’t want to demonize the word “closure.” But “closure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them — when they’re lost, you still care about them. It’s different. It’s a different dimension. But you can’t just turn it off. And we look around down the street from me — there’s a Thai restaurant where there’s a plate of fresh food in the window every day for their ancestors. Are they pathological? No. That’s a cultural way to remember your ancestors. Somehow, in our society, we’ve decided, once someone is dead, you have to close the door. But we now know that people live with grief. They don’t have to get over it. It’s perfectly fine. I’m not talking about obsession, but just remembering.
Tippett: I want to read something you wrote in The Guardian. I think the occasion of this may have been the tsunami, maybe, or the Japanese earthquake.
Boss: The Malaysian airliner, I think.
Tippett: Yeah, the Malaysian airline. But you were writing about some of what you had learned in 9/11. You wrote, “One year later, a New York reporter doing a story on the anniversary of 9/11 asked me why I thought New Yorkers weren’t over it yet. My answer: ‘Because you are trying to get over it.’ Paradoxically, as T.S. Eliot suggests, what we do not know about a missing loved one becomes all that we know. Another poet, John Keats, recommends in his letters to a young poet that he develop a capability for living with unanswered questions. Keats calls this ‘negative capability,’ and this is what it takes to live with loved ones gone missing. This is also the way for the rest of us to stop pressuring these families to find closure.”
Boss: Yes. We just have to stop pressuring people to get over it. It’s cruel, actually, to do that. I was critical of the news media about their yearning for closure. They like the word “closure.” But I have to say that once, listening to CNN, Anderson Cooper stopped the other reporters and said, that’s a bad word. There is no such thing as closure. I just loved him for that. I know from his own biography that he knows what loss is, and he understands that there is no closure. He’s the only reporter I’ve ever heard explain that in the line of his work. And I think the rest of us have to do a better job of it too. There is no such thing as closure. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it’s OK. And it’s OK to see people who are hurting and just to say something simple. “I’m so sorry.” You really don’t have to say more than that.
[music: “To Be Buried and Discovered Again” by The End of the Ocean]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with ambiguous loss expert and family therapist Pauline Boss.
Tippett: There’s some place — I want to look for this in my notes. Here it is: When loss remains ambiguous, “the only window for change” lies in “perceptions.” And human perceptions are real in their consequences.
Boss: Yes. When you have an ambiguous loss, perhaps any stress or event, how the person or the family as a whole perceives it varies a great deal, even in one neighborhood, but definitely across the globe, across cultures. So in order for us to know how to help those families, we first have to figure out how they perceive it. Again, we’re back to meaning, really. What is the meaning this has to you?
In fact, that is the first question I ask: “What does this mean to you?” Because until I know what this means to them, I have no idea about how to intervene. If I say, “What does this mean to you?” They may say, “It’s a punishment from God,” or “It’s a punishment from my loved one. He’s always been after me,” or something like that. Then I know what their viewpoint is and can proceed that way. Or they may say, “I always fail at everything. That’s what this means.” Then you know you proceed that way. Or a person might say, “This is another challenge, and I think I can manage it.” This is another meaning. It was like the alarm clock story I told. Perception matters very much, and it opens the window for how you would proceed toward resilience and strength.
Tippett: I haven’t found you writing about this exhaustively, but you mention it, that you went through a divorce. You were divorced from the father of your children, and that divorce is an ambiguous loss. That really brings this down to earth because that is an experience that is so common. And I have to say, I get it, but I also kind of want you to explain to me how it’s an ambiguous loss.
Boss: Well, obviously, it’s not as dramatic as the disasters we are talking about, but it’s more common every day. That is, you are leaving someone, you have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here. So they’re here, but not here. They’re present and also absent at the same time. That’s especially true when you co-parent children. So divorce is a kind of human relationship that is ruptured but not gone.
When I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, this psychiatrist I was studying with, Carl Whitaker, said to us, “There’s no such thing as divorce. You can never get divorced.” At that time, we were just furious with him for saying that. But, in fact, that’s correct. Once you have had an attachment, you cannot cut it off entirely. It is part of your being. It is part of who you are. As I say, if you’re co-parenting children, you are physically interacting still. It’s messy. It’s in and out. And that’s the ambiguity of divorce. It’s the way it is.
Tippett: And it is a grief. It’s a loss, right? Even if you want it and it’s the right thing and all that.
Boss: There’s still the grief.
Tippett: What struck me as I was thinking about this, thinking about interviewing you is, this is maybe another one of these areas where we could be kinder, where we could be better. Because I think when we talk about divorce or when find out somebody’s getting a divorce, I’m not sure that we treat it as we would a loss or that we acknowledge that grief in the room.
Boss: Sometimes I’ve made a mistake by saying I’m sorry. And they’ll say, “Don’t be.” Here’s where I prefer to use the line, “What does that mean to you?” so they can give you a clue as to where they are with the divorce. Some people, these days, will just say, “Well, we’re just both fine, and we just decided to go our separate ways.” And then somebody else may say, “I’m devastated.” So I think that question of, “What does this mean to you?” is a way to get a clue. And then to know how to proceed after that.
Tippett: This kind of follows on something you said a little while ago, that there is no such thing as closure, that when you have a loss or you have grief, it remains part of you in some way, and that that’s normal. And here’s another way you said it, that “keeping deceased loved ones in your heart and mind, like a sort of psychological family, can be rich in meaning, and it should not be branded as pathology.” You wrote this essay about the myth of closure, the problem with closure, with a colleague. Was she also a psychiatrist? Psychologist?
Boss: No. Donna Carnes. She’s a poet living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Tippett: All right. So that makes sense. Because her poetry — tell her story. She had a very kind of classic case of ambiguous loss.
Boss: Yes. Jim Gray was a computer scientist, Turing Award winner, famous mentor of a lot of the people on the West Coast in the tech arena. He went sailing one Sunday out of San Francisco Bay and has not been seen since. I worked with the family and, in fact, with Microsoft to have a tribute instead of a memorial.
Jim Gray’s wife is named Donna Carnes, and she is now back in Wisconsin, which was her family’s original home. She has written some wonderful poems, I think, about her missing husband. That is how she copes.
Tippett: I wondered if you would read this one, which I think was the last one in that article. I have it here, “Walk On,” which just seemed to me — it captured a way to do this thing you talk about — of live with ambiguity, and let the grief be part of you, and let the loss be a loss, and let life have meaning.
Boss: Donna Carnes wrote “Walk On.”
“You walk on / Still beside me, / Eyes shadowed in dusk; / You’re the / Lingering question / At each day’s end. / I have to laugh / At how / Open-ended you remain— / Still with me / After all these years / Of being lost. / I carry you like / My own personal / Time Machine, / As I put on my lipstick, smile, / And head out to / The party.”
Tippett: Yeah. You know, Pauline, even in the beginning, I think, of the Ambiguous Loss book, which was your first book, you talk about the kinship between the poet and the therapist. Would you say a little bit about that? That was so intriguing to me.
Boss: Yes. Where was that now? I think I have to read it.
Tippett: Maybe it was in this, “The Myth of Closure.”
Boss: I think it is here. And I do believe this: “Scientific discoveries happen not through method or magic, but from being open to discovery by listening to one’s emotions and responding to intuition. Like a poet, the researcher, as well as the therapist, needs the ability to imagine what the truth might be. Each tests it, but in a different way. The poet words a couplet, the therapist tries a strategy, and the researcher tests hypotheses. A theorist, however, must be aware of all three.”
Tippett: Right. “Like the poet, the researcher and the therapist need to be able to imagine what the truth might be.” Is that what you said?
Boss: Yes. We have to imagine what the truth might be. And I know that with statistics and with rigorous scientific methodologies, we say that’s the truth or an approximation of truth. But I think we also have to ask the right research question. And many times, we haven’t been doing that. So that’s where intuition and imagination come in.
Tippett: Right. In the formulation of the right question, which is also a good virtue for life.
Boss: Good virtue for life, it is. Well, this is what I’ve learned: that it’s still hard for me, given my American, Protestant, Swiss American background, to deal with ambiguity. [laughs] I find I need to learn daily how stressful it is, and I’m reminded daily how stressful it is. And I need to learn how to become in the midst of it. I don’t suppose that will ever end, but I am curious about it still. Yes, very much so. I don’t like to use the word “acceptance,” but I think we can try to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.
[music: “Something Like Nostalgia” by The Abbasi Brothers]
Tippett: Pauline Boss is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Her books include Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, Loving Someone Who Has Dementia, and Ambiguous Loss. She offers a global, online course through the University of Minnesota called “Ambiguous Loss: Its Meaning and Application.” You can find that at ambiguousloss.com.
And this week find a companion conversation to this show in the On Being podcast feed. It’s our latest episode of Living the Questions — I touched base with Pauline about ambiguous loss and the year 2020. Find that at onbeing.org or wherever you like to get your podcasts.
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, and Jhaleh Akhavan
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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