Living with Ambiguity


“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
Gilda Radner

mother showing a pic of her sonA mother of missing showing the photo of her son that she carries all the time hoping to find him some day.

Life surprises us with ambiguities of many sorts. Not all ambiguities are delicious in nature. Some are very painful and long lasting. Some, of course, might be exciting, temporary and teach us lessons in life. Being able to accept and live with ambiguity can be a great strength.

The ambiguity of loss is one of the most painful and difficult ones to deal with as it is unclear and ones who are facing them swing between hope and despair most of the times. Hundreds of thousands of relatives around the world are living with ambiguity about the state of their loved ones whom they have lost due to armed conflict, natural disasters, accidents, migration, etc. On International Day of the Disappeared, marked every year on August 30, missing persons are publicly remembered and solidarity is strongly expressed to the families for their right to know the fate of their loved ones.

Psychologist Pauline Boss calls the phenomenon of living with ambiguity of loss when a person is physically absent but psychologically present as ‘Leaving without Good Bye’. Family members are often hopeful of their return some day or at least finding out what actually happened to them even after decades of disappearance.

In Nepal, around 1350 people are still missing from the time of people’s war (1996-2006). Families are still searching for the answers about the fate of their loved ones. Parents hope to see their children back to support them in an old age, wives still believe themselves to be married and not-widows, and children are equally ambivalent about the status of their missing father/mother. Wives pray and do fasting for their husbands’ longevity on the occasion of teej and other religious occasions although they do not know where they are. In case of missing from other phenomenon such as natural disasters, accidents, and migration, families presume such people to be dead after certain period of time, then, they carry out certain final life-cycle rituals according to their cultures & religions and they move on with their lives. For ones missing in relation to armed conflict, there is no basis for performing the final rituals as it could be seen as betrayal and abandonment of hope so, the ambiguity is stronger and long-term. The closure is not attainable as it occurs in normal circumstances which is often expected by the society.

Families remain confused and in dilemma. People cannot make sense of what is happening and cannot find the meaning or get the sense of coherence. Without meaning and coherence, they can’t find hope to move forward in their lives. As a result, both coping mechanisms and grieving processes are immobilized. These are the effects of the ambiguous loss which cannot be judged as pathological as clinicians might view it as some of the effects look like the symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. However, the risk of developing clinical pathology must not be undermined in the long run. The impact and results of support programs for the families have shown that community-based and local approaches are better than the clinical interventions such as individual counseling/therapy. The interventions that reinforces the new relationships and social network, and that focuses on utilizing their own resilience & resources and developing tolerance for ambiguity have found out to be effective in terms of mental health and psychosocial support.

Living with ambiguity is difficult but developing tolerance can become great strength in this ever-changing world around us. Lack of closure and not knowing can be embraced gracefully.

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2 thoughts on “Living with Ambiguity

  1. As deep we have expectation, desire so is deep pain; Living in ambiquity is like living in double edged sword ; When we know there is no one to remember then we are free to choose pain and pleasure; when there is a situation where we are not sure ; in uncertainity is most painful like deep muscle pain; either way knowingly or unknowingly we are choosing pain only..Hence; a strron support from government to know about whereabouts and love and affection from relatives and friends can work as a relief..

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