Holiday gatherings can act as glue to hold families together, but some people we love may not be able to pull up a chair at the table this year--or maybe ever. Others are only partially present. "Ambiguous loss" is the term coined by family therapist Pauline Boss of the University of Minnesota to describe the problem of having a loved one absent but not clearly dead--missing in war or a natural disaster--or only a limited presence because of Alzheimer's or an emotional issue. In an interview with TIME, Boss, whose new book for therapists, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, is due in 2006, offers ways to find strength and hope to those facing an ambiguous loss.
How can families with soldiers in Iraq cope with their absence during the holidays? Their families can keep them present psychologically. Technology--phone calls, videos, e-mails--can help, as can an exchange of gifts.
After a death, don't many people see the holidays as an ordeal to get through? They may, but that's better than not having a gathering at all. It's fine if they want to shift where and how they celebrate, as long as the people they care about are with them--because it's the human connection that heals and makes a family.
Can the empty chair mean different things to people in the same family? Absolutely, especially if someone is missing and you don't know when or if or in what shape they're coming home. We don't tolerate ambiguity well because our culture socializes us to solve problems and get closure. I tell family members that it's O.K. to have different convictions about whether that person will return as they were. I urge them to be patient with each other and, even in dire circumstances, not to judge the hopeful person as weak or deluded. It's human to nurture hope in the face of uncertainty.
What if a missing person's sister wants his gifts under the tree, and his brother can't bear seeing them? She should wrap the presents but put them in a closet to avoid upsetting her brother.
How do the losses of aging affect family celebrations? In one family I saw, the grandfather always carved the turkey. One year the old man botched it badly, and the bird fell on the floor. Everyone was humiliated and wanted to cancel the next year's dinner. "Why can't we carve in the kitchen," a 12-year-old piped up, "and put the platter in front of Grandpa to serve?" This was a pivotal moment for the family. Families resist change, but they can and must learn to find new ways of being together, especially at holiday times. These gatherings are the heart of family life.
What do you do, and what do you tell kids, if Grandma is demented and in a nursing home? Move the whole party to the home. Tell the children, "Grandma may not recognize you, but she's still your grandma, and she likes to be touched and to hear our voices." Teach them to be affectionate, even if it's only one way. These are great moments to teach children optimism in the face of difficulty. They will imitate how we cope.