The Challenge of Supporting People Suffering Ambiguous Loss: An MPS Case Study

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 8:45 AM
Room: Booth 55
Oral Presentation
Hiroki NAKAMORI , graduate student at Kyoto University, Nara-shi, Nara-ken, Japan
This presentation examines the challenge of supporting people suffering ambiguous loss. “The theory of ambiguous loss” was introduced by Pauline Boss to define the sort of unclear loss that defies closure, such as having a family member go missing during a natural disaster and caring for a loved one with dementia. Boss provides detailed strategies for professional therapists to treat people suffering ambiguous loss, but does not sufficiently explain how supporters with key information should negotiate these delicate situations. In order to evaluate this aspect of ambiguous loss, I observed and analyzed the activities of the Missing Person Search Support Association of Japan (MPS), a non-profit organization devoted to helping families search for their relatives who suddenly disappeared. Families in these situations experience ambiguous loss, as they do not know if their loved ones are dead or alive.

   My analysis shows that MPS volunteers have to provide mental and emotional support to the families of missing persons while assisting with search efforts. The volunteers listen to families’ anxieties about their relatives’ safety almost every day. They primarily try to be sympathetic and receptive to the families’ narratives of loss, like a strategy Boss recommends. However, sometimes they must impose upon or contradict these narratives when they obtain new information during their search. In these situations, they struggle with the decision to inform the families that their loved ones will likely never return to them, despite their hopes to the contrary.

   This case study illustrates that clarifying ambiguous situations often conflicts with mental care goals when supporting persons suffering ambiguous loss.