A mother is only as happy as her saddest child — Chinese Proverb

The brittle stress, the penetrating fatigue, the stunned loneliness and social isolation, and the impotency of our parental love has a name.  Well before the opioid epidemic scorched New Hampshire and Maine and Massachusetts and the states beyond, Dr. Pauline Boss at Harvard identified and defined the theory of ambiguous loss to explain the confused and often invisible pain of loving a person who is physically alive but psychologically or spiritually lost to us, or of loving a person who is physically lost or missing but not officially dead.  She explains that ambiguous loss is an unclear loss that defies closure. Originally, Dr. Boss’ work applied to immigrants separated from family abroad, and then to the caregivers of parents sliding into dementia, but her theory is a perfect-fit explanation for the parental experience of loving an addict.

Dr. Boss is very clear that “ambiguous loss is a relational disorder and not an individual pathology.  With ambiguous loss, the problem comes from the outside context and not from your psyche.”  Which means that our parental pain comes from circumstances, not from self.  There might have been plenty wrong with us personally before a chronic disease consumed our child, but what was wrong with us did not cause our pain.  We do not suffer because we are weak; we suffer because our child is ill.


Dr. Boss goes on to explain that:

“ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss.  It defies resolution and creates long-term confusion about who is in or out of a …. family. With death, there is official certification of loss, and mourning rituals allow one to say goodbye. With ambiguous loss, none of these markers exist.  The persisting ambiguity blocks cognition, coping, meaning-making and freezes the grief process.”

The aching sadness we feel in the absence of the child we once knew is very, very real, but can, at times, feel like a shrieking self-centeredness and self-absorption. Giving the experience a name and classifying it as a theory studied at Harvard provides me with enough comfort and distance and language to better tell the truth: I experience ambiguous loss as all of the responsibility but none of the reward or privilege of parenting.

Ambiguous loss explains the cycle of desperate activity and advocacy — the full force of my mother-love — barreling down on a disease that threatens the very life and soul of my child, to utterly no consequence except the critical commentary of others and the toll of stress on my body, relationships, and ambitions.

The theory of ambiguous loss explains the soft melody of grief that now scores my life. My heart aches for something TO DO that will make a difference, but my heart aches even more over the loss of mutual relationship, growing friendship, and tender affection that I once enjoyed with my adult child.  Ambiguous loss explains why my stability and wellness and ability to let go, to move forward with my life are now measured by how well I can pretend that my heart isn’t broken.

What is happening to us has a name.  The soft melody that is the soundtrack to our broken hearts has a name.  We’re not crazy and we are not weak.  We are face to face with ambiguous loss.

Reprinted with permission from www.whenweloveanaddict.com.  Copyright 2015 Kay Ryan