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When I first visited Pauline Boss in late May, Minneapolis was on the cusp of fully reopening. Boss, who is 87, greeted me in her building’s lobby wearing thick-framed glasses, her light blonde hair short and an Apple Watch clasped on her left wrist. She cautiously extended a hand toward me. “Can we shake hands?” she asked, smiling. “Dare we?” We did.
The apartment was bright, with two walls of windows pouring sky into the space. Bookshelves were filled with works of sociology, psychology and history; a section was devoted primarily to Sigmund Freud, and another to Boss’s hometown, New Glarus, Wis. Out the window, the Mississippi River churned under bridges, past the tangle of downtown.
The view, however spectacular, was not the apartment’s selling point. The elevators were. Boss, an emeritus professor of family social science — the study of families and close relationships — chose the place seven years ago because her husband’s declining health had made it difficult for him to climb the stairs of their house near the University of Minnesota, where she taught. His decline was gradual. In 2000, he was using a cane; by last year, when he was 88, rheumatoid arthritis had rendered him unable to walk. Vascular issues resulted in open wounds on his legs.
Despite his illness, the couple maintained a semblance of normalcy, entertaining guests, going for drives and attending the theater, until last year, when the pandemic isolated them in the apartment. Then, their only visitors were home health aides; once they left, Boss would take care of her husband, changing the dressing on his bandages and administering his medications.
“It sneaks up on you,” Boss said of the burden of caregiving and its attendant emotional struggles. She felt a range of contradictory feelings: gratitude for their time together, grief over the loss of their old rhythms and anxiety at the inevitability of his death. Boss was also confused about her role in their partnership. Once solely his wife, she was now also his caregiver.
With her husband’s drawn-out illness, Boss’s life came to resemble the cases she’d spent her career studying. Nearly 50 years ago, as a doctoral student in child development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she researched families with at least one member who was either physically or psychologically absent. Her initial studies in the 1970s focused on families in which fathers were too busy working to spend time with their children, and later on the wives of fighter pilots who were missing in action during the Vietnam War. The fathers were psychologically absent but physically present, while the fighter pilots were the reverse. Each situation created a sensation of limbo for family members, a lingering sense of grief over losses whose nature was uncertain.
Sometimes, as in the case of a death accompanied by a body and a certificate, the scope of loss is relatively clear. But in the cases Boss studied, losses lacked such authoritative certainty. There were often no bodies, and thus no rituals for mourning. Rather than being tied to a specific event, these losses frequently extended over many years, deepening each day in ways that grievers could not register. Could such experiences even be considered losses? Boss, observing how families spoke about their missing relatives, coined a term to define the unclear — and often unacknowledged — absences in their lives: “ambiguous loss.”
Over the next several decades, Boss studied and provided therapy to the family members of Alzheimer’s patients, as well as the relatives of people whose bodies were never recovered after natural disasters, or in the collapse of the original World Trade Center on 9/11. Theirs were losses without “conclusion,” in the traditional sense of the term, an experience of paradox — a simultaneous absence and presence — that eluded resolution. Can you mourn someone whose body is present, even if the mind isn’t? Or whose death is unconfirmed? Can you grieve a foreclosed future?
The concept, Boss maintains, is inclusive, encompassing a range of moderate to severe losses that we might not perceive as such. It can take many forms, often quotidian: an alcoholic parent who, when inebriated, becomes a different person; a divorced partner, with whom your relationship is ruptured but not erased; a loved one with whom you’ve lost contact through immigration; or a child you’ve given up for adoption. These experiences are an accumulation of heartbreaks that we cannot always recognize.
Freudian notions of grieving have taught us that mourning is a process leading to detachment — a sort of closure. Boss finds this model misleading, perilously bound up in the way Americans conceptualize themselves. In a new book published this month, “The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change,” she writes that the United States is a place that privileges narratives of self-sufficiency and rationality. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s linear “five stages of grief” model — which implies that if we work hard enough and follow certain steps, we’ll be able to get over our losses within a reasonable timeline — remains a popular mode of thinking. But Boss argues that many losses do not follow such models, and our reliance on them does not equip us to cope.
By contrast, ambiguous loss gives us a term with which to acknowledge the amorphous nature of its emotional wounding. People are able to identify with this type of loss when they have language for it. “Whenever you bring it up to somebody,” Boss told me, “they go almost within five minutes to one of their own.”
Perhaps this is why Boss’s work has had a resurgence of interest among researchers and journalists during the past two years, in the wake of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a time when the global community is grappling with questions of atmospheric grief, she has broadened her attention beyond the family, looking — along with her acolytes — out to questions of societal bereavement.
This influence isn’t sudden. After the 1999 publication of Boss’s seminal book, “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief,” numerous scholars began building on her work. They published papers examining exile, foster care and traumatic brain injury through the lens of her theory. Today, younger researchers have inquired whether urgent social and political issues — the loss of the world as we know it as a result of climate change, or the stifling sorrow of suffering consistent racial violence — can be understood within her theory. This reflects ambiguous loss’s growing influence and breadth as a tool to understand why, and how, we grieve.
Boss takes pleasure in mentoring younger scholars and seeing them apply the theory in innovative and often surprising ways. “It’s like a bouquet of roses to me,” she said. “For me, if the theory is useful, I feel good about that.”
Inspired in part by the queries, “The Myth of Closure” takes a sweeping look at racial unrest and the pandemic while refuting the idea that grief has a prescribed endpoint. In some regards, the book is a testament to the ways in which these researchers have pushed her thought in new directions, particularly on race. “Now, after much thinking since that fateful Memorial Day when George Floyd was killed, here in my hometown of Minneapolis, combined with the questions coming to me from around the world, I have expanded my ideas about ambiguous loss,” she writes. “It can happen to one person, one family, a local community or the global community.”
“The Myth of Closure” is also her attempt to make sense of simultaneously unfolding catastrophes in her personal life and around the world. “This is the first time I’ve raised ambiguous loss to a higher level regarding the pandemic, a societal level,” Boss told me. In trying to describe losses that society doesn’t always recognize, Boss might be helping us to rethink the nature of loss altogether.
Pauline Boss at her home in Minneapolis, Minn.Credit…Alec Soth for The New York Times
Boss emanates the wisdom of a lifetime spent focused on an idea. Her manner is thoughtful and serene. During our conversation, she chose her words carefully, gazing out the window while searching for the best possible formulation. Her work can be grim in nature, but she is quick to laugh and delights in small pleasures — on her birthday, she was content to go for vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips. Though her oeuvre is vast — eight books, more than a hundred peer-reviewed articles and chapters, thousands of citations spanning some 44 years — she responded to my questions by drawing from a well-kept archive, recounting decades-old anecdotes and arguments with ease.
The daughter of a tenant farmer and a homemaker, Boss grew up in New Glarus, a Wisconsin village populated mostly by Swiss immigrants, including her father. He came to the United States during the 1920s to study agriculture, intending to return to Switzerland to marry. Then the Great Depression hit. He was stuck.
Eventually, Boss’s father married and started a family in America, working with dairy cows and growing crops. He missed his home, but he wasn’t sure that he could ever return. Boss noticed he sometimes became distant, especially when letters arrived from Switzerland. “Homesickness became a central part of my family’s culture,” Boss wrote in her 1999 book. “Longing for faraway family members was so common that at an early age I became curious about this unnamed loss and the melancholy that never went away. It was all around me.”
In 1952, Boss started college in Madison. At the time, it was rare for a girl from her village to study beyond high school. Most married upon graduation, and Boss herself married as a 19-year-old college student. Yet she was eager to learn about a world beyond the farmland of southern Wisconsin, where going out on the weekend meant a Friday-night fish fry and dancing the polka.
After college, she studied for a master’s degree in child development and family studies, writing her thesis on the cultural roles across three generations of Swiss American and Amish women in her hometown. Excited by this “kitchen table research,” in which anecdotal information gleaned from hours of conversation became the data, Boss embarked on an academic career that existed at the edge of disciplines, in the relatively unknown field of family social science.
As a doctoral student in the early 1970s, she developed the theory for which she is best known. Invited to observe a psychiatrist’s sessions at the university’s family-therapy clinic, she “noticed that the fathers were always angry about being there. And they said, ‘The children are mothers’ business. Why am I here?’” Boss told me. The fathers, many of whom worked corporate jobs, were too preoccupied to help raise their children. She termed the phenomenon “psychological father absence in intact families,” but a professor who taught her theory-development course pushed her to think bigger. In retrospect, Boss says, she could have spent the next decade writing solely about fathers. Instead, following her professor’s advice, she landed on a broader research concept: ambiguous loss.
Her father’s estrangement from his European family, and his emotional absence from his American one, were the germs of Boss’s theory. She now knows that her father was experiencing ongoing grief in which no death had occurred; while she realized then that what she felt was the ambiguity, the loss was vague. Theorizing a category of loss would help Boss, fellow academics and laypeople make sense of griefs whose origins and parameters were equally unclear.
Over the next 45 years, as a researcher and therapist, Boss worked with thousands of families who struggled with similar dynamics. Often she was called to provide emergency therapy for people whose relatives were missing following a disaster. Meanwhile, she was coping with her own personal tragedies — the deaths of both of her parents, and her sister.
Boss found that ambiguous loss can result in what she termed “frozen grief,” when people are stuck in their sorrow; or “disenfranchised grief,” a term coined by the mental-health counselor Kenneth J. Doka to describe when others do not see a significant loss as legitimate or deserving of support. To that end, her work diverges from historical grief research, which has considered sorrow something to overcome. Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” first published in 1917, promoted detachment from the deceased as a healthy grief response, and therapists following this model counseled their clients to let go of whomever they had lost. Such training focused on helping clients seek “closure,” an endpoint to grief.
Rejecting linear models, Boss offers six nonsequential guidelines meant to help people bear their grief: making meaning out of loss; relinquishing one’s desire to control an uncontrollable situation; recreating identity after loss; becoming accustomed to ambivalent feelings; redefining one’s relationship with whatever or whomever they’ve lost; and finding new hope. Two of the guidelines, “meaning” and “new hope,” are especially important for coping, intended to help people consider what the loss signifies in their lives and how they can imagine a future that contains their loss.
Boss draws from the work of thinkers who challenge presumptions of linearity in the grief process and provide language that breaks free from the confines of Freud’s formal writings. She finds inspiration in the writings of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist and concentration-camp survivor, who wrote of searching for meaning in loss, and the psychologist Dennis Klass, whose theory of “continuing bonds” offers a paradigm of bereavement in which mourners maintain a relationship — if only psychological — with the deceased. “While simplistic declarations of closure are comforting for bystanders, they are hurtful for the bereaved,” Boss writes. “If we have loved, we will want to remember.”
I first encountered Boss’s ideas in July 2020. My grandfather had just died of Covid-19, which he contracted at his care facility near Dallas. My mother, brother and I had driven halfway across the country to say goodbye to him through a closed window. Because he had Alzheimer’s, I had spent years trying to say goodbye, but this final time was abrupt, ragged like a wound reopened. We told him we loved him, and he struggled for air. After two days of this, he died in the night.
One afternoon about a week later, while waiting to pick up his ashes, I heard Boss on a 2016 episode of the podcast “On Being.” Her voice, clear yet gentle, cut through the air-conditioner’s thrum as she spoke with Krista Tippett, the show’s host. “We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions,” Boss said. “These are losses that are minus facts.” I wasn’t alone. During the pandemic, Tippett noticed that people were posting on social media about that interview. “People were saying, ‘I’m listening to this again, it’s really helping me,’” Tippett said. She decided to invite Boss back onto the show to discuss how her theory might apply to the pandemic. They talked about “losses not just of life but of livelihood, of possibility, of dreams, of plans, of things that seemed certain yesterday,” Tippett told me.
Boss had given me a theory for my own life — and language to describe the prolonged nature of my loss. For nearly a decade, my grandfather had succumbed to Alzheimer’s, until he could no longer remember my name or face. At the end of his life, we lived far apart, and that distance made it difficult to see him, a reality that now haunted me. There was a temporal lag in my experience of loss; though he was now irrefutably gone, I’d been losing my grandfather for years. His death dredged up old feelings of guilt and regret. I mourned the time we never spent together, the questions I never asked. Ambiguous loss seemed to explain this long, unsettled grief.
“The Myth of Closure” describes the complicated experience of mourning during the pandemic. “To all of you who are grieving someone or something you loved and lost during this pandemic, may I say this?” Boss writes. “It is not closure you need but certainty that your loved one is gone, that they understood why you could not be there to comfort them, that they loved you and forgave you in their last moments of life. Without these things, some doubts may linger for you, but that is the nature of loss. Its ending is never perfect, even in the best of times.”
Boss intends for the book, a relatively slim text comprising nine chapters, to be therapeutic. It’s a hybrid work: a self-help book providing strategies for coping with ambiguous loss, but also a document of observations from 40-plus years researching and counseling families, and a personal meditation on love and loss. While her old arguments — against binary thinking; in favor of accepting paradox — are the foundation, the book is also a response to overwhelming global catastrophes of late. “This worldwide health crisis brought many ambiguous losses,” she writes. “Loved ones died alone in hospitals with no family allowed, all losing the comfort of a last goodbye; students lost rituals of graduation and saying goodbye to classmates, as well as the chance to meet new friends at the beginning of a new academic year; younger children were schooled at home, many alone in their rooms in front of a computer; others struggled because they had no broadband, computer or internet access. The critical experiences that traditionally marked growing up were lost — a surreal experience for the young as well as their parents.”
Outlining why these losses are ambiguous, Boss considers the theory’s two original categories: “physical” and “psychological.” “The first is physical — no body to bury, no proof of death. We see this now with Covid-19 deaths, where families are not allowed to view the body or have the usual funeral rituals of mourning and burial,” she writes, describing the pandemic’s early days. Psychological absences can also include obsessions or preoccupations, she continues, noting that many people have been “preoccupied with worry and anxiety about the virus.” Social distancing was also an ambiguous loss, she argues; unable to visit loved ones, we were psychologically present but physically absent.
The theory is “not as narrow as it was in the inception” — a positive development, Boss told me, because more people can find the concept meaningful in their own lives. Researchers have expanded the original two categories to include applications beyond the family. “The theory of ambiguous loss has left my desk long ago,” she said.
While Boss cautions that “ambiguous loss can’t be a theory of everything,” she also acknowledges that ambiguity is difficult to measure. “It is perceptual, in the person’s mind,” she told me, making its study particularly personal. Social scientists like herself assess whether something may be considered an ambiguous loss based on qualitative interviews, plus some quantitative data. How interviewees describe their loss is a key indicator of whether it is ambiguous. Boss gives examples of such language in her work: “Am I married or not since my husband has been missing for decades?” “How do I answer how many children I have when I gave one up for adoption?”
When asked to define the theory, Boss simply says it is “an unclear loss that can be physical or psychological and it has no resolution.” Undergirding the idea are core assumptions that speak to its subjectivity, the first of which states that “a phenomenon can exist even if it cannot be measured.” In other words, the loss’s immeasurability doesn’t negate its existence — or its crippling effects. Second, she assumes that, when it comes to ambiguous loss, there is no single narrative that can explain a deprivation; subjectivity colors our perception of loss. The goal of social scientists and therapists should be to determine how people can live well despite not knowing or understanding the scope of their loss. Third, ambiguous loss is a relational phenomenon, based on attachment.
That ambiguous loss is so broad may be frustrating to those who crave absolute parameters. But its haziness is the point. “It’s a theory about imprecision, and how do those of us who like precision live with such ambiguity,” Boss told me. If ambiguous loss seems to encompass an impossibly large field, it is because the researchers and writers following after Boss see its potential to reshape society’s expectations for grief.
Last year, Boss received a flood of public and scholarly inquiries about one particular application of the theory: racism as ambiguous loss. In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered, just a few miles south of Boss’s apartment. Younger scholars had already begun using her framework to research the extreme stresses of racism, and now, following their lead, Boss turned her attention to a loss pervasive in her own city.
In “The Myth of Closure,” Boss contributes to the already robust study of slavery’s traumatic aftermath. She suggests that losses from slavery — the experience of being wrenched from home and family, of losing control over one’s own body — were ambiguous. These relationship ruptures, which to me recall the sociologist Orlando Patterson’s theory that enslavement caused “social death,” produced a generational transmission of trauma, “remembered today in the bodies and minds of their descendants,” and omnipresent in the systems that continue to oppress Black people today. Boss draws from scholarship in family therapy, sociology and social work, particularly the work of Elaine Pinderhughes, who, she writes, “was one of the first to teach me that historical context matters for human development and that being traumatized instead of nurtured will affect not only children, but also their own offspring as well.”
The harrowing video of George Floyd’s murder catalyzed an intense outpouring of grief and anger, a manifestation of omnipresent racial trauma. That continual trauma, Boss suggests, is where ambiguous loss lies. Scholars have long studied racism as a source of stress and grief — in the 1970s, the psychiatrist Chester Pierce wrote about the stressful “mundane extreme environment” in which Black Americans live — but now family scientists are finding new resonance in Boss’s work to explain how racism can produce ambiguous losses in Black families and communities.
One scholar applying the framework is Chalandra Bryant, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. While researching marriage in Black Southern families in the mid-2000s, Bryant met a woman who confided that her husband was acting unusually withdrawn. Although he was still functioning — going to work, picking up his child from school — he was emotionally vacant. Bryant learned that news reports about racist incidents and his child’s experiences in school had deeply affected him. “It turns out that he was depressed and apprehensive and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why,” Bryant said. He felt “he had no control over making sure that his family felt safe.”
Bryant sees Boss’s theory as important to understanding the effects of stressors. Racism, she says, is a stressor impacting the lives of Black Americans. “That could leave a culture wondering, Where do I fit here? Who are we as a culture that so many people can feel such hatred toward us?” Bryant, who is Black, said, “I think that can make people wonder or think about where they fit in society.”
Today Bryant is working with a team on a project that examines financial strain on Black families through the lens of Boss’s theory. Racist housing policies historically prevented Black Minneapolis residents from accumulating wealth; today only 25 percent own homes in the metropolitan area, compared with 77 percent of white residents — the largest homeownership gap of any major American city. Financial stress, Bryant says, can contribute to people losing their sense of self, often without understanding why. In this way, the nebulous effects of anti-Black racism permeate the psyche.
In mid-July, I returned to Minneapolis and asked Boss to accompany me to the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, known as George Floyd Square. In May, the intersection was closed to traffic, inviting mourning, meditation and protest. Now I saw that the offerings and gardens previously occupying the space were moved to make room for cars. A silhouette of Floyd, facedown with wings sprouting from his shoulders — marking the spot where the police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck — was now surrounded by concrete barriers to protect against traffic.
We ran into a man named Jay Webb, a volunteer gardener. He cried out when he learned Boss’s name. “Your line of thinking has helped me,” he said excitedly, rushing to grab his phone for a selfie. Webb said he encourages visitors to accept their grief and search for peace, sentiments that echoed Boss’s thought. It was clear her work had expanded into the public sphere, moving people in her own city. Webb told Boss, “You are so, so needed here.”
The theory of ambiguous loss originated in the families and communities she studied and counseled decades ago, and encounters with everyday people like Webb continue to shape her thinking. Boss, who considers herself a lifelong student, learns from these people. “I need to keep my eyes open,” Boss told me after we visited George Floyd Square. She recognizes the limits of her knowledge, and expresses gratitude for people who, even in the twilight of her career, have pushed those limits. With “The Myth of Closure,” Boss is learning in public. The resulting book emerged from reflection during the first months of the pandemic, as a response to “what was happening around me at the time,” she says. “I realized that, not only was I changing, but that the people who were writing to me were writing about different things,” she told me, which “stimulated my own rethinking, new thinking.”
And though she is an expert on loss, Boss is herself learning how to grieve. In the summer of 2020, her husband’s health took a turn for the worse. First, he was hospitalized. Then, a few weeks later, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. One evening, Boss noticed her husband couldn’t pick up his spoon, so she fed him instead. But he seemed his normal, genial self, and a nurse said he was improving. Boss left for the evening; he blew her a kiss goodbye. At 10 that night, a doctor called. Her husband was unresponsive. Boss and her daughter rushed to the facility, and there they learned he’d had a stroke. The staff brought them chairs to rest, but they couldn’t sleep. In the morning, Boss’s daughter left to take a shower at home, and when she returned suggested that her mother do the same.
Boss, however, said she would stay. “Everybody in my life — my father, my mother, my sister, my brother — died when I turned my back and left,” Boss told me, her voice wavering. A heaviness settled over our conversation. “And I said, ‘I’m not leaving.’ And then I looked at him and within about five minutes he took his last breath.”
Meg Bernhard is a writer from California. Her essay on shared grief, “Water or Sky?” was anthologized in the Best American Travel Writing 2021, and she is at work on a book for Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.