I was unfamiliar with the idea of ambiguous loss until only recently when I heard it explained by the rather famous psychotherapist Esther Perel on an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, an equally famous podcast. Originally coined in the 1970s by Pauline Boss, also a relational therapist, ambiguous loss is most simply explained as loss without the opportunity for closure. Even when a loved one dies under the most tragic of circumstances, we generally have knowledge of the events that led to their death or may have even experienced those events firsthand. Despite our seemingly insurmountable feelings of grief, being armed with such understanding will eventually lead us to acceptance and closure. When the facts of death are unknown, however, such resolution remains beyond our reach. Consider the example of losing a loved one to a disappearance or kidnapping, to an act of war or terrorism, or to a natural disaster. All of these cases deal with the concept of “physical absence with psychological presence.” Our loved one is gone, but we are unable to fully accept this as fact because the circumstances of their death or disappearance remain remote and unexplained, rendering them impossible to process. Similarly, there are instances when we know where a person is or what has happened to them, but our relationship has changed because of circumstances like separation, divorce, or incarceration, and contact may become unwelcome, restricted, or even prohibited. The very modern occurrence known as “ghosting” would also fall into this category, in the sense that when a relationship ends without explanation or an opportunity for conversation, it can feel very much like a death or disappearance. Closure and acceptance can take years.
All of the above examples fall into what is known as type-one ambiguous loss. There is a second category that refers to the psychological loss that results from an emotional or mental disappearance. According to Boss, these cases can all be described as “psychological absence with physical presence” and would include personality shifts caused by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, drug and alcohol use, and chronic mental illnesses like depression. Our loved one is still physically present, but they’ve changed so much that they are no longer recognizable to us, which leaves us longing for them in a way that is constant and particularly painful. Interestingly enough, Esther Perel has expanded the category of type-two ambiguous loss to include our modern day obsession with our cell phones. In her work as a relational therapist, she has encountered many clients who feel emotionally estranged from someone significant because that person is immersed in the world of their cell phone. “When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feed, physically present but psychologically gone, or literally having another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone.” According to Perel, this is a very potent, yet slippery form of ambiguous loss that has helped to create a “culture of loneliness” in this modern world that we inhabit.
I have always believed that the great irony of loss and loneliness as universal human conditions is that while they may appear to be isolating at first glance, they actually provide the opportunity to form deeper bonds and a sense of belonging once they are acknowledged and articulated. Ambiguous loss carries this same kind of connective power. The extreme instances of each type given above may thankfully be beyond the realm of empirical awareness for many of us, but we are quite familiar with those that are more prevalent and less exceptional. We know only too well the pain of divorce, or losing relatives due to estrangement, or having to manage the devastating consequences of addiction or Alzheimer’s disease. Pauline Boss believes that naming and understanding larger scale ambiguous losses can help us to process their more nuanced appearance in our everyday lives. For example, we have all experienced moving and leaving a house behind that was once the home where many of our significant life moments took place. We drive by, and the house is still there, but it is no longer our home, and that loss pulls at a place deep inside us in a way that is difficult to comprehend. Similarly, we may be well acquainted with the pain of miscarriage and know the unique emptiness that comes from losing a life and a dream that was not yet visible to the world. In both these cases, the loss is indeed ambiguous, making it difficult to mourn, but once articulated, we find that there are others who say “Yes, I felt that same way,” and suddenly our pain feels less like only ours to carry. Certainly we can all identify with Esther Perel’s thoughts on cellphones and social media feeds. It would, in fact, be challenging to find a single individual who was not familiar with having face-to-face conversations put on hold when the person sitting beside them gets a message, alert, or notification that demands immediate attention. There is a world within our phones that is not rooted in reality, and our immersion in it leaves a vast emptiness behind for the person seeking our genuine presence. But we do not need to accept this culture of loneliness as inevitable. If we are willing to confront where and when we feel loss, allow ourselves to speak and share our experiences, listen with compassion and empathy to the stories of others, and remain present and grounded in what is real, we will discover the mutuality that lies beneath what we perceive as aloneness, and watch as it flies unimpeded and unafraid directly into the face of isolation.
For today’s cocktail, I knew that I wanted to create an unusual riff on a Penicillin, the drink that has come to symbolize the cure for all that ails us. I began with Recklesstown’s Windy Lane bourbon as my base and added Green Chartreuse to symbolize our connection to the earth and things that are real. I used Talisker Storm Scotch whisky to bring in the smokiness that the Penicillin is known for, but I shook it into the drink, rather than floating it on top, to allow it to be representative of companionship rather than isolation. I chose Meyer lemon as my citrus because I love how its bolder flavor stands up to dark spirits, and I made a jalapeño simple to use as my sweet component to remind us of the intensity that loss inevitably causes us to feel. Finally, I used two of DRAM Apothecary‘s bitters, Citrus Medica to lift the flavors in the drink, and Black to drop them, indicative of the need for our hearts to be open and expansive, as well as solid and grounded, all at the same time. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! Thank you so much for reading.
Culture of Loneliness
2 oz RFD Windy Lane bourbon
.25 oz Talisker Storm Single Malt Scotch whisky
.125 oz Green Chartreuse
1 oz Meyer lemon juice
1 oz jalapeño simple syrup
1 dash DRAM Black bitters
1 dash DRAM Citrus Medica bitters
Long shake with ice.
Double strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with Meyer lemon strips.