Navigating ambiguous loss and estrangement during the holiday season

I work at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and every time I log in to our electronic system, I see notices about things happening on the various campuses. A few weeks ago I saw a notice about a training on Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss, PhD.

I was curious, as the word ambiguous feels like what my life is all about. Living with type 1 diabetes is a daily navigation of uncertainty.

I was moved to look up the word ambiguous.

As a side note, I have always loved words and dictionaries. After all, I majored in Spanish in college, which required taking a few linguistics classes and understanding how words develop. Plus, I studied with a High Priestess when I lived in Santa Cruz, California, and Shekhinah Mountainwater, my teacher, talked about the power of naming. As people find words for things or concepts, they gain power. This has always resonated with me.

Here is the definition of the word ambiguous, from the Merriam Webster dictionary

  • doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness
  • capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways

Which led me to be curious about pairing the word ambiguous with the word loss. I took a look at Pauline Boss’ website and I was launched into some serious tears. As Dr. Boss explains, ambiguous loss occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing.

I realized, like a bolt of lightning, that I have been dealing with ambiguous loss for most of my adult life.

In 1990, when I was 25 years old, I essentially cut off contact with my father because I realized that as a child, I had been sexually abused by him. That no contact lasted for five years, during which time I had very limited contact with the rest of my family. During this period, I spent a Christmas or two completely alone. Then some healing took place. That lasted on and off for a number of years.

Then, for the past five years, I have had no contact with my mother and sister. I have had very limited contact with my brother and his family. I realized that when my father died in 2015, I cried for the father I wished I had, instead of for the father I actually had. Despite the abuse, my father wasn’t an awful person. He did the best he could, which given the high likelihood that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest when he was a child, was against lots of odds.

I go to regular counseling, as navigating all the loss and trauma I have experienced in this life, requires assistance to process, integrate and stay present and functioning, which I am committed to doing. I feel very fortunate to have found excellent counselors along my path who have been profoundly wise and insightful in helping me remember my wholeness.

My present counselor is Elena and she has helped me name my relationship with my immediate biological family as estrangement. I have some PTSD symptoms about being able to remember what the word estrangement even means. To help, here is the Merriam Webster definition:


  • to arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in (someone) where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness
  • to remove from customary environment or associations

Today, this post, is to simply name for myself and the wider world, why the holidays are so challenging.

Apparently there are many of us who experience ambiguous loss and estrangement. Naming what I experience as ambiguous loss and estrangement is taking back my power. I’m not hiding in the shadows in shame. Instead I am naming what I have and am experiencing.

Knowing I am not alone helps greatly. As does having amazing friends that I count as family. In case you were wondering, I have plans for Christmas, and I will not be alone. One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of making sure I am with people on big holidays, even the ones I don’t celebrate anymore.

Thank you for reading. Knowing there are people who care what I write reminds me that I have value in the world.

May you know that you matter and that I care that you exist.

P.S. Writing this blog was much harder than any of the blogs I’ve written. In fact, I had to do lots of deep breathing and self-reassurance chats. By writing in public about estrangement and ambiguous loss, I am acknowledging that my biological family is not perfect, and as a kid growing up, I got the message loud and clear that we were to behave as if our family was perfection. To make it through writing this post, I got up every few minutes and danced and reminded myself that I am good and lovable.

Sammy, my sweet pup, kept reminding me I matter to him!

Here’s Sammy, sending love to you and me!

Sam sending love to all!


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12 thoughts on “Navigating ambiguous loss and estrangement during the holiday season”

  1. My parents took in foster children when I was growing up. I was able to see that pain in those little eyes.

    It is very hard to open yourself up. I am glad you are able to. Forgiveness is very healing too, as I am sure you know. One of the hardest things to do but the most important.

    Love to you and Sammy! I look forward to reading your blog every week.

    • Cathy,
      You are simply a delightful human being!!! Knowing you will read my blogs makes it easier to write them!!!
      Sammy says hello!

    • Wow Jerry, it is amazing to me how many people share these difficult experiences. I do find it strangely comforting. And yes, Sam is a good pup to share!! Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it. And you.

  2. I am very humbled to meet you and get to know you. You write the deep and important life challenges that not too many are brave enough to face. I was seeking family who accepted me as who I am and found that they do not have yo be blood relatives to be your family. I am blessed to have an adoring husband and four beautiful boys. Still ambiguous loss is so common and sadly enstrangement too. It is a constant isolation which is why I always seeked other people who truly cared about me and my well being. Thank you for all the amazing things you do. You are loved and you are important to us. Take care and enjoy the days with Sam.

    • Maybelyn,
      Very well stated. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comment and good insights. And super big thank you for your kindness and blessing! Sammy and I will have a wonderful holiday season. I am taking a few weeks off of work to focus on my writing!
      With love!

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