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How Singleness Can Be an Experience of Ambiguous Loss

Grief and loss. Ever-present realities unifying the human experience. Oftentimes, we speak to grief and loss over losing a loved one in death.

But what does it look like to grieve a loved one we've longed for, but never met?

Singleness can be an "ambiguous loss" that results from loss and grief that defies closure because the story is ongoing. It can and does often make single life difficult.

Ambiguous loss comes in two types. The first, when a person is physically present, but psychologically absent, such as in the case of Alzheimer's disease or alcoholism. Although the person with Alzheimer's or alcoholism is physically present in the family or among friends, the person is not fully present emotionally given the impact of the disease or substance abuse.

The second comes when a person is physically absent, but psychologically present, such as in the case of a missing child or a soldier who goes missing-in-action. Although the person is physically absent from the family, the person is psychologically present in the minds of their family and friends because there is hope that the missing person may be found. It can be very difficult to live with the uncertainty of knowing if the psychologically present and physically absent person will or will not be found.

Single adults who want to marry can experience this second type of ambiguous loss. There is a missing person — their desired spouse — present in the single person's mind, yet physically absent from his or her daily life. This dynamic not only complicates our grief and loss, but also, there is no closure.

As the number of single adults continues to rise, learning to understand the challenges facing this growing population is essential.