What is a “leaving without goodbye”?

Dr. Pauline Boss labeled one type of ambiguous loss as “Leaving without Goodbye”. A typical example is when a family member goes missing during a disaster. It refers to a state of physical absence, but having a remaining psychological presence, because there is no certainty of death. This type of loss is not limited to the aforementioned missing due to disaster or distress, but also includes disappearances, kidnapping, loss of home or hometown, divorce, etc.


To the families of the missing persons

It takes time to accept reality as it is, even when it’s right in front of you. It is still hard to believe that a family member is missing. Getting used to the situation can be a challenge. “I get anxious thinking about them all the time, I feel mired in the thought that he/she is not alive, and sometimes, when I think he/she should be alive, and I feel very unsettled.” Also, because these feelings are not understood by those around them, the remaining family member(s) may be hurt when they are told to “forget about it” or “give up”. Even when one thinks he or she must be gone, they often continue to hope and wait as long as it is unconfirmed.


There is no answer for “ambiguous loss. No one can give the right answer as to whether the missing one is alive or not. In that situation, the family is waiting for him, and they don’t know what to think, how to live or how to think of him/her. This is very unsettling and I don’t know what to do. In addition, even within a family, each person may have a different way of seeing and dealing with the situation.


In such a case, what should be done? In many cases, we feel like we need to give up, and those around us encourage us to give up. It’s very hard to settle for something that is so uncertain.


When advising people with this condition, Dr. Boss often tells them, “You don’t have to decide”. How can this be? Because, in these situations, “No one knows” is the most correct state of affairs. However, even in the state of “not knowing,” it is possible to cope with that loss.


You don’t have to “decide one way or the other” if you are still suffering from the situation. You don’t have to attend a memorial service or funeral if you don’t feel like it. You don’t have to try to forcefully acknowledge the loss, but it is said that it is better to do something that makes you feel connected to the person. For example, talking about the person as a family member, putting up pictures, or inviting their friends into your home can help you reconnect with the person in your heart.


It can also be helpful to talk with people who have gone through a similar experience or who understand your thoughts. At that time, even if the other person feels differently than you do, it doesn’t mean that either party is wrong. Because of the ambiguity and uncertainty of the situation, the thoughts and ideas that emerge vary from person to person.


Coping with ambiguous loss begins with saying, “It’s okay if each person thinks differently.” When those around you and yourself are able to acknowledge that, we can support each other. When a person feels their thoughts are respected, they are able to take the next step.

Clue to recovery

When Dr. Pauline Boss visited Japan in 2012, she told us that getting as much accurate information as possible to families of the missing could help them recover from “ambiguous loss”. Here’s an example


After an ambiguous loss, no matter how solid or stable a person may be, the mind becomes unstable. Also, family relationships that were previously uneventful/good can become strained by an ambiguous loss. It is not that person’s fault, nor is it that family’s problem. It’s the “ambiguous loss” situation that people and families feel stuck in. The cause of all their problems doesn’t come from within themselves or their family, it comes from the outside.


People prefer certainty and stability. It’s natural to look for quick answers if everything is either right or wrong / black or white in their situation and their feelings. However, when coping with ambiguous loss, the important thing is not to look for an answer or punctuate your feelings. This is because it’s hard to find closure, even if you want to. So let’s try “both A and B” thinking. For example, “That person is gone, but he’s still in my heart,” or “I’m worried that the situation won’t change, but I also have an opportunity to move forward.


One thing that is very important for recovery is connecting with people. Most people have the power to recover on their own if they can get support from their family and the community. Do you have support that provides you with the right information? Also, do you have access to “a person like a family member” right now? (It doesn’t have to be a real family member, but a person you might feel is a “psychological family member”). The person who listen to your feelings or support you spiritually. They may care about you as if you were part of their family. Connecting with someone you can trust can help with peace of mind or make life a little easier.


Take a few moments to look back at your current situation with a kind heart, without blaming yourself or anyone else. What have you or your family members lost through this ambiguous loss? Even without that person, what do you still have? What does this situation mean to you? Are there disagreements within your family about the loved one who is no longer there? Is there any conflict between husband and wife, parent and child, or siblings because of this? Have any family roles or rules changed after this ambiguous loss?

If you have the opportunity, hearing such stories from people in a similar situation can provide great impetus to move forward.

The impact of divorce on children

The 2017 Japan demographic statistics show that there were more than 210,000 divorces that year, and that more than 210,000 minor children have divorced parents. In Japan, most children are raised by the parent with sole custody after a divorce, and about 85% of sole custodial parents are mothers. It also seems that one out of every two couples who become single-parent families after a divorce are poor, earning less than 2 million yen a year.

Parents who do not have custody of a child can legally meet them in the form of “visitation exchanges” after the divorce, but if discussions between the parents do not go well, it may require mediation or a trial.


Divorce is not only extremely stressful for parents, but it can also be a mixed loss experience for children. The parent who is no longer able to live with the family is now absent in their lives, but still psychologically present. This could be called Type 1 of “ambiguous loss”. Also, their school and residence may have changed and the atmosphere in their home may have shifted drastically. Additionally, if the mother is working from morning till night because of financial problems, she may be psychologically absent because the child is not able to rely on her even though they live together. In other words, for the child, the divorce may also result in their experiencing Type 2 “ambiguous loss”.


Also, for parents who are separated from their children after a divorce, the absence of their children in their lives and livelihoods can be an ambiguous loss.


How to support couples struggling with divorce and the children in their families is a very important issue. In other countries, when couples with children divorce, there are mandatory divorce education classes and parenting programs to help parents learn about the impact of divorce on their children and to reduce conflict between parents. In Japan, the need to provide support for children during and after a divorce has begun to be addressed.