Ambiguous Loss Wounds Veterans and Family by Marilyn Lash, MSW

Trauma of war

Not all losses can be seen or touched. There are many wounds of war.

Not all losses can be seen or touched.

My husband read Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken in 2 days, so I was curious about what was so compelling and picked it up next. In case you haven’t read it or seen the movie by the same title, it’s the story of Louis Zamperini, whose Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific in the early months of World War 2. His survival on a life raft surrounded by sharks was followed by brutal beatings and continuous torture for years in a Japanese POW camp. His incredible spirit and endurance led to heroic characterizations and plaudits when he finally was rescued years later at the war’s end, but that was not what so captivated me.

Over the last several years through my work with Hope for the Homefront,  I have met with hundreds of women, caregivers and vets wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. I can not count how many times I have heard them say, “He came back a different person…He is not the man I married…A part of him is missing.” Or in the words of veteran, “ I can’t leave the war behind when it’s with me every night…My battle buddies were my family…I look okay, but I’m not.”

Ambiguous loss

Facing the wounds of war

Facing the wounds of war

What really struck me in the story of Louis Zamperini’s return home was how little has changed and how much has changed.

Over the two and a half years that he was a POW, his family never knew whether he was dead or alive. His story is a tale of ambiguous loss, a clinical term referring to a loss that is unclear and has no closure. It is a loss that persists over time in the context of uncertainty and creates devastating uncertainty for families. This is what the Zamperini family endured over all those years of his captivity. Not even the War Dept or Red Cross had any record of his survival or imprisonment, leaving his family in a vacuum and vortex of ambiguous loss.

Yet this concept of ambiguous loss is still relevant today for the many families and caregivers of returning veterans who are physically present but “something is missing.”  It is the psychological absence, emotional disconnect, or inner soul that has been altered somehow and is so disturbing for the spouses, parents, siblings, and even children to witness. Unlike the happy homecoming reunions so often featured on the news, families are asking, “Who is this person who has come home?” or He’s home but will he ever come back to me?”

Breaking the cycle

That’s the value of reading Unbroken. While the media has focused on Zamperini’s heroic fight to survive horrific torture, the other story that unfolds is that of his family at home. Clinical studies describe the outcomes of ambiguous loss as increased family conflict, separation and divorce, mistrust and anger at professionals. After Zamperini’s initial triumphant return home, he disintegrated into a vicious cycle of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and violence that threatened to destroy not only him but to alienate his wife and family. This cycle was directly related to the chronic severe PTSD that threatened not only his physical life but his emotional well-being. Long after he was released from prison camp, long after the torture had ceased, the recurring PTSD kept him a prisoner after he returned home.

Sadly, this cycle is being repeated today with many of our returning veterans and their families. For all those who believe that PTSD is a form of malingering, or mental weakness, or character flaw, Zamperini’s story shows how powerful the grip of PTSD can be.  Unlike the early combat veterans, there are now many options and advances for treating PTSD. But let’s not forget the lessons of ambiguous loss and help their families as well. There is another battle waging on the home front.


3 responses to “Ambiguous Loss Wounds Veterans and Family by Marilyn Lash, MSW”

  1. It’s so nice to hear from you – miss seeing you and hope you’re doing well.

  2. Great article, Marilyn. I hadn’t heard this term before but it certainly helps make sense of some things I’ve experienced. I also appreciate your insights on applying it to family members of wounded warriors. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Janet Cromer says:

    Thank you for shining a light on the critical issue of ambiguous loss. The pain of ongoing grief over being, or living with, a changed person has so many consequences.Fortunately, therapy aimed at living with ambiguous loss can validate the experience and help move forward anyway.

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