Ambiguous Loss

Date posted: Friday 09 April 2021

Over the past few months, our church, St. Anthony Park Lutheran, has been addressing the topic of ambiguous loss. We have had an online series of speakers to address this often felt but rarely claimed effect on our mental health. The isolation of the COVID pandemic has only added to the stresses of our lives and we are left with heightened feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness without stopping to consider or validate the state of our mental health.


According to researcher and therapist Pauline Boss, “ambiguous loss” is generally defined as “a loss without closure, social acknowledgement or ritual.”It is a relational disorder triggered by an outside event affecting who we are in relation to others. Our Christian connection is found on Holy Saturday living as the women who weep at the foot of the cross not knowing what will come next — the women who never stop loving Jesus while they anoint his body and visit his tomb. For many people, Holy Saturday is not one day, it’s every day. The absence of life is not the end, it’s the beginning of a completely different reality and identity set aside from what should have happened.


There are two different types of ambiguous loss: Physical Absence and Psychological Absence. 2

A physically absent loss:A psychologically absent loss:
• Abduction, military deployment, college
• Missing from war, terrorism, or natural disaster
• Abandonment
• Adoption
• Immigration
• Dementia/Alzheimer’s
• Mental illness
• Brain injury
• Chronic illness
• Autism
• Depression
• Addiction

As we acknowledge the effects the COVID pandemic has had on our society, we realize both of these types of loss are widespread and profound. We have been unable to physically meet with our community, neighbors, and loved ones. We are missing human touch, casual conversation, and the rituals of our society that validate who we are. Weddings, funerals, graduations and baptisms have been distant affairs. This physical loss often spurs on psychological loss as many people turn to substance abuse, eating disorders, or other harmful behaviors as a means of coping with unaddressed or unsupported mental distress.


The role of the church is twofold. First, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called into community with one another. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” The pain of any one in the community affects the whole community. We are called to care for one another as Jesus has cared for us.


Secondly, as Dr. Ed Treat points out, there is a church in every town on every corner. In other words, people of faith are everywhere. We have an opportunity to raise awareness and resources for people living with ambiguous loss — even after the pandemic. Our Spirit guided community of compassion is strong enough to shelter the most vulnerable in our midst by sharing our space, resources, compassion, and prayer. Calling attention to ambiguous loss is the beginning of this journey. I thank the Saint Paul Area Synod for providing the grant to further our ministry on the subject of mental health.


Speakers in the series:


- Teleen Saunders

St. Anthony Park Lutheran, St. Paul


Click here for more information about the synod's mental health grants.




1 Craig DeLarge, “NAMI Ambiguous Loss Talk Deck,” SlideShare, November 17, 2013,
2 Ibid.