College of Education and Human Development

Family Social Science

Honoring Pauline Boss

Pauline Boss has helped people across the world cope with the grief associated with loss through her development of ambiguous loss theory and its translation to clinical, community, and research-based settings. The College of Education and Human Development is committed to honoring Dr. Boss' legacy and continuing her work through the establishment of the Pauline Boss Endowed Chairship.

With your support, Pauline Boss' life's work to help people cope with loss will continue to evolve through the time and talents of future CEHD scholars.

Pauline Boss and her colleagues define ambiguous loss and share the many ways the theory has positively affected their lives, personally and professionally. 

How Pauline Boss’ groundbreaking theory changed our view of loss

Sometimes people call Dr. Pauline Boss a grief expert. She always corrects them. “I’m not a grief expert,” she says. “I’m a loss expert.” Loss leads to grief, she explains, but in the case of a missing person, for example, the ability to grieve is frozen. You are immobilized waiting for clear information which may never come. “You don’t know if that person is alive or dead,” she says. “People can’t grieve; they are stuck. Thus the theory of ambiguous loss is about stress, a deep, deep stress that without certainty, may continue for a lifetime.”

Boss, a professor emeritus in the Department of Family Social Science, has spent nearly 50 years studying this phenomenon of ambiguous loss, a term she coined in the 1970s.

Ambiguous Loss defined

Most of us have dealt or will deal with some kind of Ambiguous Loss in our lifetimes.

Ambiguous loss is a loss that remains unclear and thus has no resolution, leading to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and chronic sorrow.

Type One is defined as physical absence with psychological presence. Examples include: kidnappings and those missing due to wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. Losses stemming from divorce and adoption are more common examples of Type One, as well as the loss of physical contact with families due to immigration.

Type Two is defined as psychological absence with physical presence. This can occur when the individual is emotionally missing or anyone who was cognitively gone, such as those afflicted with dementia, traumatic brain injury, mental illness, addiction, or any condition that takes away one’s mind and memory.

Colleagues and friends share the impact Pauline Boss has had on family social sciences and them personally. Dr. Boss looks back on her work and to the future of ambiguous loss.

Quote from Chalandra Bryant

She started thinking about Ambiguous Loss and developing Ambiguous Loss theory when she was a graduate student. I tell my students that. That's legacy... The future of Ambiguous Loss is bright!

Chalandra Bryant Professor and Pauline Boss Faculty Fellow in Ambiguous Loss Department of Family Social Science, College of Education and Human Development

In their words: Stories of ambiguous loss

Friends, colleagues, and even those who have never met Pauline Boss honor her with stories about how she and her work have forever changed their lives for the better.

Susan O. shares how Pauline Boss' book on ambiguous loss helped her lead a support group for family members of those with mental illness.

Linda R. shares how Pauline Boss' work has helped her offer support to families.

Tai M. explains how he was introduced to Pauline Boss and her work as a graduate student and how the concepts have continued to influence his career. 

Ryan W. shares his experience working alongside Pauline Boss and the impact her work has had on his family.  

Elsbeth N. shares how Pauline Boss' work has influenced her personally and professionally. 

John B. explains how Pauline Boss' work helped him find a better understanding of grief and loss. 

Susan M. explains how the discovery of Pauline Boss' book impacted her understanding of loss and grief. 

George N. shares how Pauline Boss' book helped him through his personal experiences.

Connect with us

The College of Education and Human Development is currently engaged in a campaign to endow a Chairship in Ambiguous Loss to honor Dr. Pauline Boss and her life’s work in establishing Ambiguous Loss theory. We would welcome the opportunity to connect with you directly and learn more about your goals and how they align with this opportunity. Please submit the brief form and a CEHD staff member will be in contact with you shortly.