How Does One Cope With Ambiguous Loss? The Case of the Disappeared Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370

in Relationships

By Dr. Brian Scott (Guest Contributor)

The continuing confusion and lack of definitive information about the whereabouts of Malaysian Airline MH370 for over two weeks (when this post is written), has focused the world’s attention on the suffering of the family and friends of the 239 missing passengers. It is difficult to even imagine what these family members and friends are going through. This article looks at how we can help those coping with an ambiguous loss such as is the case for the family and loved ones of those missing on MH370.

Coping with loss in general

 The U.S. Navy helps search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
(photo: Official U.S. Navy Page)

From a psychological point of view, grief is the experience of intense sorrow following a loss. There is a wide range of things whose loss can induce grief. What all these losses have in common is that without them, one’s life experience is changed to a stressful degree. The purpose of coping with loss is to reduce this stress and enable the person to gradually re-establish their equilibrium and go on with their life.

Nature of the coping process: Defined loss versus ambiguous loss

In order to help individuals coping with loss, it is essential to recognize that there are two very different categories of loss: defined loss and ambiguous loss. Examples of defined loss are the death of a loved one or loss of our job. In these two examples, the loss is well defined, familiar, and explained with most cultures having developed rituals e.g. the funeral and customs, to help a person grieve and move on in their life. There is also psychological help because much research has been carried out on defined loss. For example there is the 5 stages theory of grieving (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression & Acceptance) which is well known and useful in helping persons encountering difficulty in grieving a defined loss (Kubler-Ross, 1970).

The second category of loss is ambiguous loss where the loss is not clearly defined. The term “ambiguous loss” was introduced by Pauline Boss nearly 45 years ago (Boss, 1972) and has proven extremely useful. It arose out of her observation that some families had fathers who were physically present but psychologically and emotionally absent. Boss found that how the family coped with such an ambiguous loss was very different from how it coped with a defined loss such as the death of the father. Boss (2006) wrote “… ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss. It defies resolution and creates the long term confusion…” It is the ambiguity of their loss that makes coping so difficult for the family and friends of those on flight MH370. Fortunately strategies for helping those coping with ambiguous loss have been developed (Boss, 1972; 2006; 2013).

Ambiguity and the loss of MH370

 Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Flew For Seven Hours?
(photo: Zennie Abraham)

The MH370 incident is an example of an ambiguous loss albeit that sooner or later, it is likely the plane will be found and the ambiguity of the loss for the family and friends will disappear. Nevertheless until this happens, the family and friends of those on the plane are in the excruciating situation of not knowing if their loved one is alive or dead; they are coping with an ambiguous loss. They may wake up feeling hopeful only to have this hope dashed by new revelations.

Vice versa they may be feeling sad and hopeless but see light when new positive news appear e.g. the plane may have been hijacked, giving them the hope that their loved one is still alive. Because of this extreme variation from utter despair one moment to soaring hope the next, their reality may appear to be unraveling. Their perception of their whole life is thrown into disarray and they feel disoriented and confused.

Another problem specific to ambiguous loss is that the families and even the culture are not familiar with how to cope with such a loss. They do not know whether to mourn or try to keep up their spirits and be hopeful. The same applies when survivors of the loss try to help each other because they don’t know whether they should encourage the other person to be hopeful, or do just the opposite and attempt to help the other person face the terrible reality that their loved one is deceased and will not be coming back home.

What non-professionals can do to help the person coping with ambiguous loss?

  • In both normal grieving of a well defined loss and in coping with ambiguous loss, social support can be very helpful if done in a sensitive and informed manner. Educating yourself about ambiguous loss is especially important because it is more complex and hence requires more nuanced types of helping behavior
  • One particular difficulty in case of an ambiguous loss is that family and friends are confused about what to say to the survivor. Where the losses are well defined one can say various appropriate things, depending on the circumstances, for example “at least their suffering is over.” However with ambiguous loss, thinking out supportive statements is more difficult although it can be done if one becomes familiar with ambiguous loss concepts. For example you can say: “Just take it one day at a time.”
  • It also is important not to avoid those coping with ambiguous loss because one doesn’t know quite what to say and do. It is enough just to be physically and emotionally present and available to listen.
  • Allow the person coping with ambiguous loss to work through their process in their own way. In the case of defined loss, some benefit by talking or even writing about their loss while others do not (Stroebe et al, 2002; Stroebe et al, 2006). This likely holds even more for ambiguous loss where there might be even a greater tendency to push the survivor into a position of deciding one way or the other the fate of their loved one. It is a tendency that must be resisted.
  • Allow the person coping with ambiguous loss to cope at their own speed. Unfortunately in modern society with its emphasis on speed and efficiency, some well-intentioned individuals who otherwise sympathize with the grieving person, may unconsciously put pressure on the griever to “get on with life” and put “closure” on the loss within an unrealistic time frame. However the reality is that grieving is a natural process which cannot be rushed: the griever has to grieve at their own pace. Grieving is a necessarily painful, lingering, and messy process and those supporting survivors of an ambiguous loss must learn to tolerate this messiness.
  • However if you feel that a family member or indeed an entire family is experiencing an unusual difficulty, then gently and calmly suggest that they get assistance from a mental health professional. If they refuse initially, as they probably will, gently bring it up later perhaps giving them the name and telephone of a therapist experienced in grieving for them to call.
  • Whether it is defined loss or ambiguous loss, it is important for those providing emotional support to be vigilant about their own level of emotional distress.

Concluding Remarks

Loss is inevitable in life whether it be defined or ambiguous. As Queen Elizabeth II said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” If we attempted to avoid loss by never forming loving or intimate relationships whether it be the love of people, love of pets, love of our careers, and even self-love, what kind of life would we have?

It is our deep sense of being connected that makes us human. Ambiguous loss theory and therapy helps us all develop a deeper tolerance for the inherent ambiguities in such valuable connections and cope better with their disruption.


Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties.

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