Home > Don't make me hurt you, only slightly ranty, Random Musings > Ambiguous Loss: A Lesson in Modern Love

Ambiguous Loss: A Lesson in Modern Love

There is something to be said for silence. It is the kind of thing that drowns. It is the kind of thing that whirls around a heart, a suffocating blanket of absence.

One of the things I dislike the most is a lack of closure. A lack of an ending. The absence of an appalling fight, names called, some kind of finality – even if it’s messy. (From a person who loathes discord to her core, THAT is saying something.)

Very few relationships in my life have ended without ending. If I am able to, I set things to right before stepping away. It is an act of common decency and respect. To do anything less in an act of cowardice. There are friends I’ve had to walk away from, writing something akin to a break up email, letter, or phone call. Unless the person turns out to be a serial killer with devastating mommy issues, I believe a person has a right to hear goodbye.

It’s one small word, laden with intent well beyond its small syllables. But I believe it’s that very word that eventually frees us, allowing us to extract ourselves from someone who (symbolically and literally) becomes the past.

For clarity’s sake, I’m not talking about the Passive Aggressive Goodbye. You know that kind, the one that begs for a punch in the face, because the person has become the King of the Douchebag Parade in Assholeville. (I’m looking at you, College Guy – who once answered me by telling me that his GIRLFRIEND was there and wouldn’t let him talk to me anymore. There was, honest-to-Java something else in there about missing pants – and I laughed out loud. Because, dear friends and gentle readers, he was annoyed at me – because I wouldn’t date him. And the girlfriend was found out to be a figment of his imagination.)

No, I’m talking about an actual, sometimes difficult as hell ending. Not a break up text. Not a public dismal, like the one in Someone Like You (while face-to-face, such a public occasion is appallingly strategic). I mean a real, true conversation. It doesn’t have to last an hour. It can be as brief as ten minutes. It should not involve thrown objects, bodily harm, or insults befitting a five year old with an emotional IQ of dirt. Or blueberry scones. (What? I haven’t had breakfast yet, and I’m hungry.)

There are a few instances in my life that lacked a real, solid goodbye. For years, I’d push the experiences aside, only to dredge them up again, prodding at it haplessly, as if I could conjure up a reason. As if I could, by sheer will alone, make it make SENSE.

You know the type. Here one moment, gone the next. A person who vanishes in such a manner that Houdini would gape and utter, “What the fuck was that?”

Yes, what the fuck was that? (Hint: Generally, the true answer is…no one knows, not even the Houdini Master.)

The guy who says he will call you in two days, when he’s back from a trip – and then doesn’t. It’s like he’s vanished off the face of the planet. If you’re Bridget Jones or Ally McBeal, you imagine he’s been besieged by wild dogs, or his phone has been snatched away by magic, cell phone eating squirrels. Somewhere down the line, you begin referring to his as The Asshole, and that’s that. (Regardless of reasoning, gentleman, that behavior is douchetastic.)

Then there’s the guy who cannot make up his mind. Oh, he is CHARMING. And he seems innocent enough, knowing exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to talk you down from the ledge – when you finally get angry enough to tell him that he’s a fuckwit. He apologizes, seems to improve his behavior, and begs for forgiveness. Days, weeks, and months go by – all things are good. Then, without a word or whisper of a hint, he disappears as if fallen through a trapdoor that leads to the center of the earth. (Where, by the way, you imagine him being eaten alive by direwolves OR being burned to death by molten hot magma – pronounced like Dr. Evil would.)

Questionable taste in men aside (and trust me, these examples are not entirely true-to-life, but exaggerated for emphasis, boiled down to Asshat Concentrate, if you will) – these things happen. And they are a vile endeavor, one that cannot be avoided or ignored. They leave a mark, often ripping you inside out, questioning your sanity and possibly seeking to self-blame. (This kind of thing has happened to EVERY woman I know – at LEAST once.)

Today, I was reading an essay in the MODERN LOVE section of The New York Times. I’m a sucker for a good love story, even if it ends badly. This one did. This one talked about the guys who vanish. (Yes, women do this, too. Let me acknowledge my gender bias, via laziness. I don’t want to have to type guy/girl or women/men all the time.) Exit Left, Wordlessly is a wonderfully written piece, but it taught me one very important thing: the term ambiguous loss. I never encountered it in any psychology classes I took, but apparently it is the term for the kind of loss where there is no body, one rife with unfinished business and a dearth of closure.

It’s the kind of end without an ending. As the author writes, “No message. No note. He wasn’t dead in a ditch.” There was no cauterizing the relationship. No dénouement. Just an unexpected, caustic flatlining.

It’s almost a balm to put a name to that kind of experience. There is power in knowing and understanding. While I do not understand the phenomenon of ambiguous loss, it is interesting to know that it is an actual THING. Of course, it might be slightly more satisfying if the notion was called Jerkface Syndrome or Jackass Disease. Or, perhaps, something more clever, like Cleavering or Wickhaming. By as it stands, the trouble is termed in truth.

It is a kindness to end things with an actual ending. Life’s stage direction should never be ‘exit left, wordlessly.’ If that occurs, perhaps the next one will be ‘exit left, pursued by bear.’ And no, I don’t mean Yogi chasing a picnic basket.

  1. January 17, 2012 at 10:45 am

    awesome read, love it! sidenote: When you mentioned the man with the figment of his imagination girlfriend, my mind immediately went to the charming man who gave us our nicknames all those years ago…haha

    • January 19, 2012 at 8:30 am

      That dude was creep-tastic! *shakes head* hehehe

  2. January 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I feel like I’ve only ever encountered one thing worse than the Ambiguous Loss that you’re writing about. I actually once had one of my Ambiguous Loss guys come back into the picture years later, and when I asked him what the hell had happened way back when, he said “Yeah, I don’t really know why I did that, but it was stupid.” When I heard that, part of me was let down. I preferred to think he actually had a decent reason. On the plus side, he admitted that it was a mistake to let me go, which always feels good in a “Take that, asshole,” kind of way. 🙂

    • January 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      Ugh, that DOES suck. Epically so.

  3. January 26, 2012 at 6:48 am


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