Ambiguous Loss in Missionary Life

EMQ » April–June 2023 » Volume 59 Issue 2

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic, Unsplash.

Summary: Missionaries living away from their passport countries often experience a phenomenon known as ambiguous loss. This term, which developed in the 1970s, fits missionary life well. Global workers can experience a loss from leaving their passport nation, but it is still there. Then when they return, they can experience the same kind of loss related to their host nation, even though it is still there. This paradox can lead to immobilization and depression. It is critical that member care staff help missionaries identify this pain point so they can live with acceptance of the tension it creates.

By Nancy R. Mauger

Culture shock, family strain, burn-out – these are common terms we see applied to the overseas missionary experience. Those who care for missionaries are familiar with conversations about the “losses” that a global worker experiences. These losses need to be grieved well in order to arrive at closure and maintain a positive state of mental health. Experiencing a sense of control is easier when feelings can be kept in the boxes where they belong. But what happens when emotions refuse to stay in those categories?

Let us turn to the field of family therapy in order to consider another type of stress which, when understood properly and applied to the cross-cultural missionary, proves insightful in developing long term resilience. Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s, and it has been employed ever since in the mental health field.

She defines an ambiguous loss as a loss without clarity which cannot be verified and therefore remains unresolved.[1] Dr. Boss describes two classic types of ambiguous loss. The first is when a person is physically absent but psychologically present. The other is when the loved one is physically present but psychologically absent. In both of these cases there is an ambiguity between the absence and the presence of a person.

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