Skip to main content

By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

It was Pauline Boss who noticed the particular struggles of those who have suffered losses where finality and closure have not been accomplished. She recognized that while all losses have some element of ambiguity, there are some that are saturated in it. Dr. Boss contends that there are 2 types of Ambiguous Loss. Type 1 occurs when there is a physical absence and psychological presence; examples would include kidnapping, missing bodies due to traumatic events, divorce where one parent leaves the home, and giving a baby up for adoption. Type 2 occurs when there is physical presence and psychological absence; examples would include Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, autism, and depression.

During my quest for information and resources about military retirement, I noticed this underlying theme of loss. And then I started to think about ambiguous loss and how this seems to fit perfectly with the descriptions of feelings associated with what newly retired service members and their families were experiencing. While it may not be a perfect fit in one of the two categories that Dr. Boss describes, I think it would fit most appropriately under type 2.

This is what is experienced during retirement and why I think it’s a fit:

Team loss:   We all know the comradery that is found within the military. While service members may continue to stay in contact with their former fellow SM’s, they are no longer serving the same purpose together. They no longer have the physical and emotional support that they were offered on a daily basis.
Loss of Resources: Physically and emotionally, the resources may dissipate after retirement. If a family lived on base, for instance, they may no longer have physical access to the resources they had before. They may also experience a loss in the physical presence of their friends who lived and worked nearby.
 A Different Environment:  The tone of the civilian world, both physically and emotionally, is different.
 A Struggle with Identity:  Service members and their families may struggle to find where they fit now. They may have to learn who they are without the military.

While the list above is not even close to exhaustive, it provides you with an idea of how retirement from the military can be a good example of ambiguous loss. So, when we are working with families going through this loss, how can we help?

Start talking immediately: Once the decision to retire has been made, we need to start talking with the service member and their families right away. This will allow the families to process and prepare and the service professional to assist in the preparation.
• Assist in finding resources and making connections: A very large part of our jobs as service professionals is making sure that the people we serve are aware of resources. Always be on the lookout for things that may assist your families. Reach out to people in your community and talk to them about the services they offer. You may even learn about new resources from the families you serve. Keep a notebook of all of your favorites to share with families!
Use resources to guide your own work: Do you have a favorite book or other resources that help with application in your work with families? Perhaps you have read Pauline Boss’ Loss, Trauma, and Resilience about Ambiguous Loss. Or, maybe you find journal articles and conversations with other professionals helpful. No matter what it is, you should always have something that helps you in your work and keeps you current on the latest strategies and research!
• Personalize, do not generalize: Last but not least, ALWAYS tailor your work to fit the family with which you are working. While it is important and necessary to stay on top of research and to have resources that assist in guiding your work, you should never use them to dictate everything you do. While families may experience similar situations and scenarios, no two families will be identical. Listen to the presenting issues specific to each family and proceed accordingly.


Blog Image: Flickr [Marines Lead Run to Ground Zero– Fleet Week New York 2011 by DVIDSHUB on May 31, 2011 CC BY-ND 2.0]