ambiguous grief lossTherapist and professor Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe unique types of losses for which there is no closure. Prototypical examples are when a loved one goes missing and is never heard from again, or a parent or partner develops Alzheimer’s disease and slowly ceases to be the person you once knew despite being physically present.

Because these fall outside the realm of “typical loss,” the folks left behind experience more enduring and more complicated grief. Most of us are prepared to deal with losses that are concrete and finite. We have rituals—burials, commemorative tattoos—that help us mark the end of a chapter. When loss is ambiguous, there are no such rituals and no finality. People around us are often ill-equipped to help. They may be confused or put off by the intensity of our grief. They might even regard it as inappropriate or unfounded. It can be tremendously isolating.

It’s no wonder that Dr. Boss asserts that ambiguous loss is the most traumatic and hardest type of loss to face. Ambiguous losses violate our sense of control, certainty, and justice. They shake our identities and disrupt our relationships with other people.

Still, in almost five decades of working with people who have suffered ambiguous losses, she and others have identified concrete steps to help people cope with, and live well after, experiencing ambiguous loss.


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What Types of Situations Create Ambiguous Loss?

As a family therapist, Dr. Boss’s work has mainly focused on two types of situations having to do with the loss of loved ones. In the first, the person is physically gone, but without a (confirmed) death. They are not here but not gone either. Examples include:

  • Missing persons, kidnapped children
  • Incarceration
  • Deployed military personnel
  • Divorce
  • Adoption
  • Immigration

In the second, your loved one is still physically present, yet they have left you in some meaningful way. These people are here but not here. This can occur due to:

  • Dementia, Alzheimer’s
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Addiction
  • Certain mental illnesses

What these have in common is relationship. The relationship you once had has been severed, and there is no guarantee (or no realistic chance) it will ever return to normal.

Researchers and practitioners use the ambiguous loss framework to understand other types of situations as well. The experience of loss is entirely subjective. Any time a loss feels complicated or unresolvable, or you believe others won’t acknowledge the depth of your loss, you might experience it as ambiguous. Homesickness might manifest as mild sadness or deep grief. Divorce devastates some and comes as a welcome relief for others. One parent of a transgender child may feel ambiguous loss over the little boy or girl they had known, while the other parent does not.https://whatsyourgrief.com/types-of-grief/‘>2 Ambiguous losses may lead to grief that is complicated, chronic, or disenfranchised (when you feel that others won’t validate your grief).https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-08128-000‘>4 People feel like failures because they can’t “get over” their feelings, when really the problem isn’t the persistent grief. It’s the lack of understanding and social support for the grieving person.

Rather than finding closure and moving on, the goal with ambiguous loss is to find a way to live with the ambiguity, develop resilience in lieu of closure, and continue to live a meaningful life despite the sadness.

Concrete Steps You Can Take

When Boss works with someone who is experiencing ambiguous loss, her first step is to name and validate the person’s experience: “What you are experiencing is an ambiguous loss, the most difficult kind of loss because there is no closure.”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18296328/‘>1

L-Theanine as an Anxiety Buster

L-theanine isn’t a benzodiazepine. It won’t brute force your brain into an overwhelming state of supreme chill. For L-theanine to reduce your anxiety, you must actually be anxious. Now, much anxiety is hidden, even to ourselves. We may not know that we’re anxious about something. We may not recognize it. So theanine can really help, as long as there’s something for it to help against.

The downside is that it’s subtler than taking a pharmaceutical anti-anxiety med; you don’t “feel it” as much as taking something like xanax. The upside is that it doesn’t make you drowsy and it’s non-addictive. In fact, most people tolerate theanine so well that researchers have been unable to identify a toxic dose. I’m not suggesting you take an entire bottle, of course. There may be a toxic dose, somewhere, somehow. But subjects have taken 400 mg of L-theanine every day for 8 weeks straight without apparent ill effect.

L-Theanine as a Performance Enhancer

L-theanine is most effective at improving the cognitive performance of people undergoing stress. In studies, this takes the form of artificially stressful environments—loud noises, oppressive rules, that sort of thing. In real life, stress is more unpredictable, and I’d argue that most of us are in stressful environments, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. If you’re lucky enough to live a totally stress-free life, L-theanine may not help your performance.

Here’s what I mean: In subjects doing mental tasks in a stressful environment, taking theanine improved performance, reduced blood pressure, and lowered subjective stress-anxiety levels.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31623400/‘>3

If you’re a kid with ADHD, 400 mg of L-theanine can help with sleep quality.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27396868/‘>5

If you’re being treated for schizophrenia, 250 mg of daily L-theanine should improve sleep quality.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19352043/‘>7

L-Theanine and Liver Health

We don’t have direct evidence of isolated L-theanine improving a person’s liver’s resistance to things like alcohol, but we do have two other lines of evidence.

First, the animal studies that show supplemental L-theanine protects the liver against alcohol-induced injury and increases liver glutathione content (the antioxidant we use to detoxify ethanol).https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22019691/‘>9

Second, the many observational studies linking green tea consumption to improved liver health and  robustness, like the one where green tea consumption seemed to protect against fatty liver.

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