Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambiguous Loss Research, Theory, and Practice: Reflections after 9/11

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambiguous Loss Research, Theory, and Practice: Reflections after 9/11

Article excerpt

This article contains an overview of three decades of research, theory development, and clinical application about ambiguous loss. Although the work includes both physical and psychological types of ambiguous loss, the focus is the aftermath of 9/11 (September 11, 2001), when the World Trade Center collapsed following terrorist attacks. On the basis of her previous work, the author was asked to design an intervention for families of the missing. She reflects on what she learned from this unexpected test and presents new propositions and hypotheses to stimulate further research and theory that is more inclusive of diversity. She suggests that scholars should focus more on universal family experience. Ambiguous loss is just one example. Encouraging researchers and practitioners to collaborate in theory development, she concludes that research-based theory is essential to inform interventions in unexpected times of terror, and in everyday life.

The history of science reveals a wide diversity of questions asked, explanations sought, and methodologies employed in the common quest for knowledge . . . this diversity is in turn reflected in the kinds of knowledge acquired, and indeed in what counts as knowledge (Evelyn Fox Keller, 1985, p. 167).

Key Words: ambiguous loss, boundary ambiguity, family intervention, missing persons, theory development, traumatic loss.

In this article, I review and update three decades of research and theory development on ambiguous loss by describing the latest tests of the theory, what was learned, and what needs further research. Throughout this narrative, there is a subtext that science, and thus theory development, is a multifaceted, not monolithic, enterprise (Keller, 1985). The process requires collaboration between scientists and practitioners, and between researchers and the people we serve.

For me, the process began in 1973 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Already then, I was interested in both family research and family therapy as a way to better understand family processes. I began with clinical observation, moved to formal research and theory development, and then back again to clinical observation. In an endless circle, this process has continued to the present focusing alternately on families of the physically missing (e.g., lost soldiers, kidnapped children) and families of the psychologically missing (e.g., from Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses or conditions that rob the mind). Never was the theoretical work about ambiguous loss subjected to so rigorous a test as in New York City after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, hereafter referred to as 9/11 (Boss, 2002a, 2002b, in press; Boss, Beaulieu, Wieling, Turner, & LaCruz, 2003). Since then, upon invitation from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the work has been further tested with families of the nearly 4,000 still missing in Kosovo after ethnic cleansing in the late 1990s. Knowledge about ambiguous loss continues to be gathered worldwide from tragedies of disease, terrorism, and war, but in this article, the example of applying theory to inform practice is limited to the case of families of workers lost in the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11).


The day after September 11, 2001, a student in my family theory seminar some 20 years ago called urgently from New York City. Her husband, president of a large labor union of men and women who serviced the World Trade Center towers, wanted support for the families of his missing union workers-workers who, when the attack occurred, were washing outside tower windows, operating elevators, and cleaning rooms and hallways. Others were preparing food for the Windows on the World Restaurant on the top floor of the north tower. Many were immigrants, migrants, or refugees from the Caribbean islands, Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guyana, South America, and Russia. …

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