Both / And

The concept of ambiguous loss is new to me.

Friends recently shared with me the idea of ambiguous loss. Dr. Pauline Boss, who spent some time on faculty at the University of Minnesota, apparently coined this phrase.

Unambiguous loss occurs when the reason for the feeling of loss is obvious. If a beloved family member dies, and we view her body in the casket, it’s clear why we feel the agony we feel.

But with ambiguous loss, we may feel stuck because the reality that causes our feeling of loss is unclear. The source of our grief is an open-ended situation. Something is unresolved. And Boss suggests this open-ended feeling changes the experience of grief. In such cases, a person may feel less able to move forward with the grieving process.

If a parent develops Alzheimer’s, that creates an experience of ambiguous loss.

For example, suppose a beloved father has Alzheimer’s. So Dad is physically present but psychologically absent. That can be ambiguous loss. Or suppose a dear friend goes to war and becomes MIA. John is physically gone, and yet remains in my heart because I’m not certain he has died. He might be in a prison camp. He might be in the very process of escaping right now. That too can be ambiguous loss.

Boss claims that with ambiguous loss, there is an uncertainty about whether the loved one will ever return or return to how they used to be. That’s what changes how grieving happens.

Would it make sense to think that a different kind of grief calls for a different kind of response?

Boss says it does. The ambiguity changes the nature of the grief and the nature of the response.

A key strategy, she suggests, is holding seemingly opposite truths in tension. Holding on to “both/and” seems to help. So if John is MIA, it helps to say: “I’ll never know what happened to John. And also, I will move on as though I know what happened to John.”

Apparently, it seems to help if a person is able to keep these two ideas in tension.

An article about Penn State seems connected.

I just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It talks about a “both/and” strategy for leading organizations. The article describes chancellors or presidents who take over universities that have experienced a crisis. Like Penn State after the sex scandal.

The Sandusky episode is real. It’s part of Penn State’s history. And also, it’s not the whole of Penn State’s history. Another part of that history is all the social good, academic research, and educational innovation that has made Penn State a unique and special place.

Both/and. Thinking this way seems to help.

This terrible thing has happened at Penn State. The new president needs to acknowledge that. And also, Penn State needs to move forward. And the new president must push for that. A new president cannot focus only on the scandal. And a new president cannot ignore the scandal.

Life is a mixed bag. Several truths stand in tension. The several truths don’t logically contradict. That’s not possible. But they pull us in opposite emotional directions. Neither truth can be denied. Both must be affirmed. Neither of the truths should so grip our minds and souls that we ignore the other.

Theologically, we live in a fallen world. We were made for a redeemed world. Both of these ideas are true. We ignore either one at our peril.

Both/and.

The “both/and” may apply in cases that are not ambiguous loss.

It seems to me that this principle applies to many of life’s experiences, and not just to cases of ambiguous loss. Certainly, “both/and” thinking helps in the specific instances Boss discusses. And also, I can see how it can apply to the task of combining appropriate community healing and forward organizational momentum at a place like Penn State.

I wonder about many other possible applications this way of thinking and being might have.

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