How a Theory is Born: A Conversation with Pauline Boss

by Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE
Dr. Pauline Boss

Pauline Boss is one of NCFR's most decorated scholars-she is an NCFR Fellow and one of our past presidents. She has been awarded our prestigious Ernest Burgess Award which is given for a career of outstanding scholarly achievement in studying families.  She is world-renowned and in much demand as an expert on grief, loss and trauma. In the spirit of full disclosure, I wasn't just the interviewer for this article. I'll admit to being her unabashed fan. I admire so many family scholars, but there is just a handful whose work has affected me or my family as profoundly as Pauline's. 

Pauline gave voice to a unique type of loss; one for which, as she describes, no greeting card is available. Just months before I read her 1999 book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Life with Unresolved Grief, my husband and I lost a child under rare circumstances and in a manner that typically goes unacknowledged by others.  A family friend and scholar, upon hearing of our loss, sent us a copy of Pauline's book. It was as if we had been living in a dark cell and someone led us to a window.  My husband and I struggled for words to describe the loss, even to each other. We had no hope of expecting understanding from anyone else. I hadn't  gotten very far into her book when I had the thought, "This is us!" And then I thought, "She has discovered another 'problem that had no name!'"

Briefly, an ambiguous loss is one in which a loved one is either physically present but psychologically absent (such as with a parent with dementia) or one who is physically absent but psychologically present (such as an estranged family member). Because these losses are outside the common human experience, families don't know what to do with their anguish. When these families hear that they "need to move on," it compounds their grief by adding shame. They appear "stuck" at best. At worst, others may imply (or families may assume) that their response is pathological. Most of the time, these families are normal and resilient, but they are living under excruciating circumstances.  The sufferers aren't "ill;" it's the context that is pathological.

Particularly painful is the pop psychology idea that these grieving families need to seek "closure." This concept is oft-repeated on talk show sofas.  The general public has picked it up, and now it's in everyday use.  Pauline found through her research and practice that in these ambiguous situations, closure is not possible nor even therapeutically advisable.  There are some losses that one will never simply "get over." The resilient and healthy way to mastery is "learning to live with unresolved grief," (the subtitle of her book) and finding meaning in ambiguity itself. 

Last Spring I sat down with Pauline in her office in St. Paul, MN, to have a conversation not just about ambiguous loss itself as much as family theory development in a more general way.  What I was seeking were answers to a couple of questions, namely:  "How was your theory born?", and "What would you say to junior colleagues in NCFR-perhaps graduate students-who are wondering if their interest in family studies might be calling them into a career as a theorist? "  She was generous with her time and eager to lend her mentoring advice.

Pauline's Theory of Ambiguous Loss began without a name when she was a Ph.D. student in a graduate school sociology course taught by Gerald Hage at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a theorist himself. She loved that class. His assignment for the students was to develop some kind of organizational theory -Pauline chose "the family" as her organization of study.  She had been writing about "psychological father absence" --a concept that she had begun to observe in her studies with her Ph.D. committee member, family therapist Carl Whitaker, also in Madison. Back in the early 70s, when she was studying family therapy, she was discovering that in a large number of families, she was seeing fathers who were present physically, but many of them were absent emotionally. As the daughter of a nurturing father herself, Pauline knew what it was like to have a father very present in her life.  The fathers she was observing maintained that the children were their mother's concern, not theirs.  For Gerald Hage's class, she wrote a paper on this type of family-one that was structurally intact, but one in which the fathers were psychologically disengaged. She subsequently presented her paper, "Psychological Father Absence in Intact Families" for the first time at the 1973 NCFR conference in Toronto. 

I was delighted to hear that NCFR was the first audience for her ideas, and I asked her to describe the experience. "It changed my life," she said. This was her first paper session as a graduate student, and she expected a light turnout.  She was told "don't worry; there will be only 6 or 8 people there." There were almost 100 people in attendance. "It caught me off guard," she said. "I was really scared." The feedback was very strong; many approached her after her presentation to tell her some version of "you're onto something."  The military researchers in the audience, Edna Hunter and Hamilton McCubbin, approached her and said, "You have the theory we need; we have the data you can use."  They had data on all of the military families of the Vietnam era who had a family member missing in action (MIA). In this case, the families were living with a physical father absence-the other type of family loss. They invited her to do her dissertation research with them.  With this rich dataset, her theory had a place to be tested. 

After the successful NCFR session, she went back to Gerald Hage who, in expert mentor fashion, told her, "raise your idea to a higher theoretical level-it's about more than absent fathers."  She thought about it for a while and then realized that the issue was about any kind of loss in which someone is "there-but not there."  The term and the theory of Ambiguous Loss were born.

Her first article on ambiguous loss was published in an unusual way. Although her paper was wildly successful at the NCFR conference, when she submitted it to a journal, it was rejected because she did not have enough data yet.  It found a home elsewhere. Using the symbolism of a whirlpool from Greek Mythology, the late Marvin Sussman edited what he called a "Charibdys" issue of Marriage and Family Review-a special issue that was a collection of promising papers that had been rejected by other journals.  This is where her theory first appeared in print.  Soon she was publishing prolifically.  (See .)

Fast forward to 2010. Her book for families, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, has been translated into seven languages. The Red Cross is using her work to help families of the missing in Haiti. The U.S. Veterans Administration is using her theory in working with the families of veterans who are returning with brain injuries and, just recently, autism spectrum disorders are getting new attention from researchers using the lenses of ambiguous loss.  These are just a few of its applications.

Her clientele has grown from those in her Minnesota practice to thousands she has helped personally or by training other professionals, all over the world. She worked in New York City after 9/11 and with families who have lived through the horror of torture or war in places such as Kosovo.  Pauline discovered that "therapy" is not limited to a one on one relationship with a trained therapist. She tells us that "community" can sometimes be more therapeutic than a single health provider. Moreover, her work has informed the therapeutic community to look for strengths. Most survivors of catastrophes will not develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and she cautions helpers to look for resiliency and not just pathology.

I asked Pauline "How often do you hear from a person-not someone who works in the field but someone who writes you out of the blue who found your book and says 'this is my...'" Pauline anticipated the rest of my question and answered, "Twice a week, minimum."  People find her and explain their situations which are myriad.  The theory has been applied in ways that Pauline hadn't even thought of when she was first formulating her ideas.  There are many ways to lose people-foster care, immigration, runaways, mental illness, grandparents who are not allowed to see their grandchildren. People call her and actually say "I think I have an ambiguous loss."  They somehow find her book and recognize themselves in it.  The week before I met with her, a father wrote to her and said "I've lost my son," but his son hadn't passed away....he was going to have sex change surgery. He was indeed "losing" the son he knew, but he couldn't yet see that the person, his child, was still there. Well-meaning people may say something like "well, you're gaining a daughter." Pat answers are rarely helpful. Something he treasured was changing forever. He was moving from the known to the unknown. When one's feelings of loss cannot be validated, they lead to what Pauline calls "frozen grief"-another kind of complicated grief.

She finds enormous joy knowing her work has been helpful to others but also that new scholars are building on it. Pauline explained, "What is pleasing to me more that anything is that there is a second generation of researchers testing the theory with other kinds of ambiguous loss that I never touched such as Autism. But it's also being testing cross-culturally to see if the theory holds up and measurement issues are being researched. These younger people are out there applying the theory, testing, doing new research, finding new avenues of research application... nothing could please a professor more than that."

Following up, I asked "What would you say to an up and coming NCFR member who's happened upon an innovative thought and is wondering 'might this be a theory?'" Pauline encourages them to study the authors who have written about the long process of theory development. She cited the work of Reuben Hill as instrumental for her. "I'd have them go often to NCFR and its Theory Construction & Research Methodology Workshop (TCRM), to gather around some mentors who are both creative and also rigorous.  You have to have a testable theory.  If it can't be tested, it's not a theory." 

Pauline came to her current place in life from a background as a wife, mother and from her first career as a home economics teacher. She was extremely busy with a young family during those years-I asked her what drove her to pursue what would be her second career and life's work.  "Curiosity is the most important characteristic, and I've always been curious.... It takes creativity and perseverance, but above all, it takes curiosity."

As we were finishing the interview, she added something I didn't expect.  She said that her intense curiosity began in childhood. "I've always wanted to be a detective," Pauline said. When she was about six years old, she was captivated by the radio program about a private investigator, Mr.Keen: Tracer of Lost Persons.  Then she said with a smile "Guess what I do research on?"

Her earlier work Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief is the book for people whose loved ones are missing physically or psychologically.  This is the book that can be handed to a family; indeed, her publisher gave out hundreds of free copies in New York City in 2001. She has a newer book- Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss, (W.W. Norton 2006) that is written for the researcher and helping professional. This is the book which describes the six levels of guidance that practitioners can use to help people live with ambiguous or unresolved loss:  Finding Meaning, Tempering Mastery, Reconstructing Identity, Normalizing Ambivalence, Revising Attachment and Discovering Hope. The six guidelines are meant to help therapists and educators ease the stress of families with any kind of ambiguous loss. These six constructs are also meant to provide a fuller theoretical model for future researchers to test. As a family life educator, I will always have a copy of this 2006 book in my personal library. I won't spoil the ending for the prospective reader, but I will disclose that in this book, she weaves insightful memoir into her work.  She has lived with ambiguous losses herself. She just didn't know what to call them at the time.

Where do theories come from? Where are our burgeoning theorists?  Some are in their first careers, feeling a new calling to go back to school.  Some are in NCFR right now. They are graduate students and new scholars. Pauline's career began with her first paper session. At an NCFR conference, she found the connections she needed to move ahead with her dissertation research and her entire academic career.

Maybe NCFR's next budding theorist is you!  I'll see you in Minneapolis in November.