I sing songs when I am lonely, and I cry when it hurts. Yet that which plagues me, my specter, is ephemeral—it lacks substance, lacks shape, and lacks form.

It is a shadow; a longing and expectation fueled by desire and sustained by hope. It makes it difficult for me to explain my sorrow to those who would comfort me in a way that they understand. I mourn a loss that is not a loss—an ambiguous loss.

Psychologists use the term “ambiguous loss” to explain the sorrow all human beings experience in the face of traumatic circumstances and it is everywhere. The mother whose son has been kidnapped pleads with the kidnappers, “Just tell me if my boy is all right!” Ambiguous loss! In New Orleans, they buried the last unclaimed body from Hurricane Katrina on the third anniversary of that disaster and somewhere a family wonders if their loved one is still alive. Ambiguous loss!

The book, Ambiguous Loss:  Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief, has been a balm to my soul. Just seeing the title I thought, “That’s it! Finally what I feel has a name. Finally the pain of singleness has some describable grounding.” The single, too, must learn to live with unresolved grief. The chapters made sense for the single life:  “Frozen Grief,” “Leaving Without Goodbye,” “Goodbye Without Leaving,” “Mixed Emotions,” “Ups and Downs,” “The Turning Point,” “Making Sense of Ambiguity,” and finally “The Benefit of a Doubt.”

“Frozen Grief” describes a situation in which the loss is unnamed or unnamable. It describes a situation in which the mind considers whether it is right or whether it is time to mourn. “Goodbye Without Leaving” explains the confused sorrow we face when a loved one slips slowly away due to illness or—old age. That person is there, but not there. “Mixed Emotions” correspond to being content but not satisfied. The others are somewhat self-explanatory. All these fall under the heading “ambiguous loss”—a loss that is not a loss and thus difficult to mourn.

For the single, ambiguous loss takes the form of longing for a person who is not there and a family that does not (as yet) exist. The divorced single must face both the longing for what might be and the sorrow of what might have been. Both share the sorrow that is not only difficult to define but difficult to resolve, a loss that is difficult to mourn—a loss that is not a loss.

As with the wife of the soldier who is MIA, singles struggle to keep hope alive, to dream and to keep from growing cynical in the process of waiting. Singles also struggle because, while rejoicing with those who rejoice, they must constantly wonder why their dreams and hopes remain unfulfilled. Growing older, they mourn as though something has escaped their grasp. And yet, because marriage is still possible, because hope still exists, they cannot really say goodbye, cannot really give up or mourn the loss as a loss. It is a loss that is not a loss. Which makes hope a struggle and a proper goodbye—impossible.

There are two reasons, the book suggests, why ambiguous loss is so devastating to a person’s well-being. First:  “Perceiving loved ones as present when they are physically gone, or perceiving them as gone when they are physically present, can make people feel helpless and thus more prone to depression, anxiety” (7). Secondly:  “The uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationships…” This is compounded, the author adds, because “meaningful connections can’t happen if people in the community never validate an ambiguous loss as a traumatic loss” (79).