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A Loss That Is Not a Loss - Part 1

  • Hudson Russell Davis Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 14, 2011
A Loss That Is Not a Loss - Part 1

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).

The first point is true because “the loss is confusing” and because the uncertainty is baffling. The ambiguity paralyzes. We are unable to make sense of the situation. We can’t problem-solve because we do not know whether the problem (the loss) “is final or temporary” (7).

The single, called to “prepare for marriage,” must perceive “loved ones as present” though in reality they are not. So the woman who has, for years, walked the aisle in her head can smell the roses on the pews and hear the wedding march in her ears. Marriage is as real to her as the air she breathes. She can hardly differentiate the possibilities that have been lost to time from what never was. Having never been married, she feels like a widow. How is she to mourn what has never been and who will listen without rebuke?

The man who longs to play ball with his son or know the comfort of his little girl’s arms works as though he is already supporting his family. He saves and plans and prepares and approaches despair at the thought that, for all his responsible planning, he may leave it all to someone other than his posterity. He may not have visualized his wedding but neither did he imagine he would be alone for so long.

There are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, mourning children they hoped for by now to have spoiled rotten. We are not alone in our fears of growing old alone. Our parents, too, want to see us cared for and they, too, know the baffling sorrow of ambiguous loss.

All must find a way to store these desires without burying them; to nurture them without allowing them to become household gods—idols. There is an inexplicable loss that is not a loss. There is a sorrow that seems unfounded and yet it is a real sorrow and a real loss—an ambiguous loss that must be mourned.

There are many ways to cope with ambiguous loss but trying to master the confusion, attempting to harness the wind, will lead to disaster and certain depression. Our longing is immaterial so we cannot throw it to the ground and beat it into submission. Neither can we, by the power of our will, reason it away. For now this confused longing and loss is something we must live with and even thrive within.

“Be still and know that I am God,” means simply, “If you know that I am God you will cease your struggle.” He is God. Let us be still. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” BECAUSE OF THIS “we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”

“He lifts his voice, the earth melts.”

“The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

“Come and see the works of the LORD … He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth …” and He will make the wars within us to cease.

Our comfort in the midst of ambiguity is the certainty that God sees our need and is concerned. “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4). BECAUSE OF THIS—we can be still. “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psa. 46). In this there is no ambiguity.


Hudson Russell Davis
was born on a small Island in the West Indies called Dominica, and this is only one reason he does not like cold weather and loves guava.  He is a graduate of James Madison University with a B.A. in Graphic Design and earned a Masters in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary.  Currently he is a Ph.D. candidate at Saint Louis University studying historical theology.  Hudson has worked as a graphic artist and worship leader but expresses himself through poetry, prose, photography, and music. His activities are just about anything outdoors, but tennis is his current passion.

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