Ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss is the incomplete or uncertain loss experienced as the ambiguity of waiting and wondering, recognised in arts, literature, opera, theatre, but widely ignored in the clinical literature (Boss 2000: 4-5). Pauline Boss, who introduced the term, differentiates between „two basic kinds of Ambiguous loss. In the first type, people are perceived by family members as physically absent but psychologically present, because it’s unclear whether they are dead or alive. Missing soldiers and kidnapped children illustrate this type of loss in its catastrophic form. More everyday occurrences include losses within divorced and adoptive families, where a parent or child is viewed as absent or missing. In the second type of Ambiguous loss, a person is perceived as physically present but psychologically absent“ (Boss 2000: 8-9). Ambiguous loss is a loss that remains unclear. As a result of Ambiguous loss, families can be trapped between hope and despair, seeking an answer but fearing of the answer at the same time.

In the context of the border deaths and dangerous migrants’ journeys, an Ambiguous loss can have multiple forms. Beside as unknown faith of disappeared, it can have a form of known, officially reported, but still not validated death, as for example, by the direct identification of the body by the close relative or by the visit to the grave.  “border deaths are a tragedy amplified by the social relations in which those who die are embedded. The family members of a missing person will experience the additional trauma of Ambiguous loss and, as a result, the number of victims of an unidentified death during migration goes far beyond the anonymous bodies that can be counted. Families’ agony is further magnified by the many legal and bureaucratic problems they encounter. These include not receiving a death certificate, not being able to claim pensions and property, not being able to remarry or adopt children, and not earning sufficient money to maintain the household (Petrović-Šteger 2009; Parker, London and Aronson 2013)“ (Mirto et al. 2020: 109).

NN grave in Popović Brdo, Croatia. Photo by Selma Banich, July 2020.

Body of deceased found on 31 January  2018 in Klopa river, near village Ladešići in Croatia. Buried as NN in the Popović Brdo cemetery on October 30 2019, grave mark 1-13-1. Data confirmed by Zelenilo d.o.o., Karlovac.


















Boss, Pauline. 2000. Ambiguous loss. Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mirto, Giorgia, Simon Robins, Karina Horsti, Pamela J. Prickett, Deborah Ruiz Verduzco and Victor Toom. 2020. „Mourning Missing Migrants. Ambiguous loss and the Grief Strangers.“ In Border Deaths. Causes, Dynamics and Consequences of Migration-related Mortality. Paolo Cuttitta and Tamara Last eds. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 103-116.