"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Ambiguous Loss: A kind of grieving over somebody or something without any clear resolution


ast Easter Sunday, my Jesuit brother, Fr Kit Bautista SJ preached about Pauline Boss a researcher and writer. She wrote a book entitled “Ambiguous Loss” a term she coined in the late 1970s after studying families of soldiers missing-in-action. For Pauline Boss “ambiguous loss” is unresolved grief, i.e., a kind of grieving over somebody or something without any clear resolution. At these times of a pandemic, there are so many ambiguous losses that could not be mourned. According to her, this loss is not only over loved ones who have died but also over the death of the normal structure of the daily life or dreams in life suddenly crushed as soon as the outbreak began.

When my own father died 17 years ago, I was away in Beijing doing a month-long cultural exposure. This was my closest experience to ambiguous loss because I was very far away from home when it happened. My father was still very much alive when I last saw him. When the Jesuit director, of happy memory, Fr Tom Steinbugler SJ, broke the news to me it was difficult at first to let the truth sink in. Fr Tom said how sorry he was. I will never forget how he tried to console me by acknowledging the fact that he died on Easter Sunday. He said, “What a good day to go!” He then asked me to pack my things and prepare to take the first flight the following morning back to the Philippines. I remember my roommate asking me a strange question when he noticed perhaps that I was not showing any intense emotion as may be expected. He asked me, "Jomari are you close to your Dad?" At first, I was taken aback and a little bit appalled, so I answered him back, "Of course! What are you thinking?” He shared with me that if he were in my shoes he would have already broken down into tears. Now I understand more clearly that I was undergoing an ambiguous loss. I can very much resonate with people nowadays who have difficulty mourning their separation from loved ones who were still very much alive when they brought them to the hospital only to hear the next day that they are gone. Their bodies have been transformed into ashes. There is no chance for the bereaved to grieve, and what starts to arise is a deep longing to want to see the faces, to touch their body, and to hear their voices again. All they could do to put the pieces back together, in one’s memory, is to watch the latest videos and pictures to be able to relive their memories which the urn of ashes could not elicit.

Mary of Magdala mistook the newly risen Jesus as a gardener, whom she probably suspected first as a thief. But when Jesus spoke her name “Mary” she clung to the “Jesus” in her memory as if he were still alive. If you have any experience of losing somebody so close to you, you can resonate with Mary’s experience. In my case, I could still hear vividly my Dad’s living and peculiar tone of calling out my name months and years after his death. I can perfectly resonate with Mary who recognized at once Jesus through his peculiar tone. Jesus and Mary had such a great familiarity like in a family. She was reliving precious connections, e.g., when Jesus first saved her from the demons; when Jesus traveled with her in doing his ministry; and when Jesus saw her present during the crucifixion, weeping and filled with distress together with the other Mary’s. All these were precious memories of being so close to Jesus and Mary stayed behind outside the tomb to weep and mourn. She could not reconcile the fact that the most beautiful and loving man that she got to know in her whole life was not only gone but his body is also missing. Such was the height of ambiguous loss. To make the situation look even more wretched is the fact that Jesus was buried like a criminal in so-called “wretched places” away from loved ones. Burials of executed persons by family members in family tombs and public funerals were prohibited so as to preserve the purity of the Land. Thank God Joseph of Arimathea took responsibility to bury Jesus’s body with the help of Nicodemus. They took upon themselves the responsibility which the family and friends were prohibited to do. According to the law and custom when the Jewish council (or Sanhedrin) condemned someone to death, by whatever means, it fell to the council to have that person buried. This was the role played by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:43). The executed were to be buried properly, but not in places of honor, such as the family tomb. This was where Mary was coming from, she wanted to pay her last respects to a dead friend. But when she saw that the body was missing she was thrown back into the horror of the humiliating crucifixion scene again. She must have thought of no one else but the Jewish Council as being fully accountable for transferring the body without notice. What is left now of her Lord’s dignity? Not only did Jesus die a criminal’s death on a cross, but the defilement towards his body continued into those “wretched places” of burial. Mary’s ambiguous loss turned into near despair. She was frantic or panic-stricken that she looked for the body. She said she would go and take it and would go through the three major stages of preparing the body for burial again: washing (rechitzah), ritual purification (taharah), and dressing (halbashah). The body is traditionally washed with clear water and wrapped in a simple cloth shroud or robe (for men, a kittel), preferably white and of linen; symbolically, this emphasizes the equality of all (rich and poor) in death. I feel very much for Mary who was not only undergoing an ordinary ambiguous loss but also a deeply psychological and spiritual one.

Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

If you were Mary’s friend, how would you help or console her? Scholars say that only hope and resilience or the ability to bounce back are able to allow the individual to continue moving forward in life. One way to tell that someone is bouncing back in a case of an ambiguous loss is that he or she actively seeks out help as soon as the person recognizes the need. Like in addressing other types of traumatic experiences, the ambiguous loss is paired with a certain trauma that must be dealt with. In the case of Mary, she knew she needed help, and sought for it by running to Simon Peter and to the beloved disciple to recount what happened and tell them concrete acts to rectify the situation. She was able to articulate what was going on inside her heart and mind. Peter and John, who were grieving as well, were there to listen to her grief. They allowed Mary to cry inside her own dark and empty tomb. The risen Lord himself did the same thing when he let the two disciples cry inside their own dark and empty tombs too as they were walking on the road to Emmaus with distraught spirits. Then Jesus let Thomas cry in his doubt. After they had all been allowed to grieve and cry, only then did they start to see how Jesus has made “all things new” like the sunrise shining above their gloomy faces and drooping hearts. After we look down into our own dark and empty tombs for some time, not for long we begin to turn around, and to look up at the break of the new dawn, and meet for the first time the new and glorified face of the resurrected Jesus. Indeed, “God’s glory is man fully alive” (St Irenaeus) which explains why Jesus could be as alive as anyone else—may he be a gardener, a driver, or a guard. The risen Jesus has broken into the deepest part of every creation. Jesus calls out our individual names using a peculiar tone, not in a generic manner but in an intimately personal way. Like Mary who was the “Apostle to the Apostles,” after having allowed ourselves ample time to mourn, may we have the courage and resilience to tell to our own selves "Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? He is not here, for He has risen. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly! He is going ahead of you.” Like Mary of Magdala, as soon as we see the transformed face of Jesus among the people around us or hear his voice, may we shout from the depths of our being with Easter joy, “I have seen the Lord!” Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ

The earliest video recording of “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is an outtake from a Fox Movietone newsreel shot in 1929, featuring the “Georgia Field Hands.”


  1. You have such beautiful reflections po, Fr. Jom.
    Thank you very much for sharing them with us.
    I simply love reading them.

    True enough, ambiguous loss is not just about losing someone but as well as losing something.
    An example is that when someone experienced loss of something important and valuable at a young age. A child will not be able to realize immediately what they have lost. Only then when she starts to be conscious of what had really happened. Then she would go back on that particular experience of loss and begins to mourn over it. So how can it be overcomed? When the person can already see clearly that despite the loss there were also many beautiful things that have happened - seeing life from both sides, somethings lost but somethings gained.

    from up and down (beyond imagination)
    from give and take (beyong my hands)
    from win or lose (beyond any situation)

    Seeing life from both sides, is seeing beyond through the eyes of faith.

    (Empty space by Jose Mari Chan also reflects this ambiguous loss)

    I'm praying for you. God bless you always.

    1. Thank you for your kind words of appreciation! Your insight made me realize too how mourning is so much a part of the natural course of things. When we lose somebody something changes but something stays the same forever. Mourning helps us choose what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. It goes with spiritual maturity to be able to allow the new reality—what you have identified as seeing in the eyes of faith—to grow in us.

  2. Ave Maria, Fr. JM. Thank you for this reflection on ambiguous loss. I came by this post as I recently subscribed to your blog, as I had been trying to make an online 30 Days Retreat. I lost my mother two weeks ago, May 12, 2021, due to heart attack. She died alone in the CR, while my Dad was in the bedroom resting. She seemed fine that day, my Dad later said so he did not suspect that she was going to die that day. Our only consolation was that she seemed at peace when he discovered her, that death came as a friend and not a fearful stranger. I was the first one my Dad called and now I am with him to at least be with him during this difficult time, since there is no one to stay with him at this time. I asked permission from my Community so I could stay here at our home not just to accompany my Dad but also to grieve. Thank you for the consoling words that also describe our grief at this time. I wasn't able to say goodbye to her then but now I feel that she's telling me she's fine, that I don't need to worry about her. God bless and please pray for her soul.

    1. I am sorry about your loss... I have included in my prayers the intention for your Mom's eternal repose. May 12 is the day before the feast of Our Lady of Fatima and Mary's prayers are powerful to accompany you always at this time of grief. God bless us always!

  3. hello fr. JM how are you... keep safe... God bless all your endeavors and desires in life. Continue to be God's messenger of love mercy and healing spiritually and emotionally. Thank you and good morning. Happy feastday to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

    1. Thank you for your kind words of appreciation and prayers! May our Lord Jesus place you with his mother so that with the Blessed Virgin Mary we will always hear her trusting words "Do whatever he tells you." GBU!


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