Quaker Universalist Voice

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Hard Grieving

A Book Review of P. Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (1990)

P. Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (1990) is a series of stories, with comments, of families in distress and grieving in complex ways, termed “ambiguous loss” by the author to illustrate a thesis about loss and coming to the conclusion that there is a diversity of helpful responses for managing loss.

The book’s title is ambiguous itself.  The book is not about living with unresolved grief, but living with confusing, confused, vague, uncertain, unclear, indeterminate, and complicated grief as a universal human experience.

The major conceptual contribution of this book is the idea that big loss comes in two flavors.  One flavor is about losses that are physically absent, but emotionally present (missing soldiers, kidnapped children, and adopted children).  The other flavor is about losses that are physically present but emotionally absent (Alzheimers disease, addictions, and chronic mental illness). This useful idea is unsuccessfully distinguished from simple loss, which is also complex.  For the reader, loss is loss, all loss is big, and all loss is complex.

The book consists of therapeutic stories of, mostly, families dealing with loss and grieving intended to illustrate the variety of ambiguous losses and the successful services of the author as therapist.  It succeeds in demonstrating the complexity of all loss and that there is a variety of means for managing this universal evolving grieving process.

The author does not address squarely the reality that ambiguous loss is a universal experience which is managed in various ways, some more productive of future resolution. Wellbeing and others less so. There is mention of intercultural ambiguous loss and PTSD in the U.S., which indicates a somewhat broader scope of care.

The author provides helpful endnotes.  There is no index.  The table of contents is not helpful, but clever.

Quakers:    There is no mention of Quakers in the book.  Religion generally is not shown to be a major resource for managing ambiguous loss.


  • What does the Quaker tradition have that is notable to contribute to the universal ambiguous loss grieving process?
  • Does the Quaker tradition do more than follow evolving cultural practice in grieving losses?


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