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Why Ambiguous Loss is the Worst Loss of All

Abandonment Without Explanation: Sheer Torture

I've recently lost someone extremely dear to me: a friend of thirty-five years. Not through death or relocation, nothing that explicable. He's simply stopped returning my phone calls and emails. Of all the horrors in the world, I think abandonment must be at the top of the list. At least, it is for me.

The last time I heard from him was over two months ago; we used to talk every day. He left me a voicemail saying, "You're still in my life, but we need to talk about things." "Things" were not specified. I waited for his next communication, assuming he'd give me more information. I'm still waiting, and every day the silence grows louder and more ominous.

As a lawyer, I try hard to be logical even when dealing with irrational issues like emotions and relationships. And because I have bipolar disorder, I try even harder not to let my feelings dictate my thoughts. I don't trust my feelings: they're byproducts of my erratic brain chemistry, the least reliable part of me. They whisper treacherous things in the dark of night, like "If he doesn't still care about you, why do you deserve to live?"

Should I have seen this coming, I wonder? I knew that we were in trouble—we'd had several arguments recently, but I thought they were resolved. Men are so hard to figure out sometimes: they hide their emotions, then expect you to be acutely aware that their emotions remain, but are hidden. I'm sorry, I just can't see through brick walls. Can anyone, except Superman?

Unfortunately, I'm highly susceptible to abandonment. When I was growing up, my parents were in a perpetual squabble and my father always had one foot out the door. I loved my father more than life itself. The thought of him leaving was devastating to me—so much so that when he finally died, I attempted suicide. To this day, when someone becomes important to me, the first thing I think is, "When will they leave?"

Which obviously makes me vulnerable, but doesn't make me all that unique. Loss is difficult for anyone. But according to my therapist, there's a type of loss that's more traumatic than most: it's called "ambiguous loss." When I first heard that term, I started to cry. At last, I thought, somebody gets it. The fact that my friend has abandoned me is awful under any circumstances. But the fact that I don't know exactly why is simply excruciating.

CNN's recent wall-to-wall, minute-by-minute coverage of the vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was lampooned by media critics. I thought it was totally understandable. It's human nature to crave an answer: when you don't know why, you can't stop wondering. The poor families and friends of Flight 370's passengers may never find out what happened to their loved ones. I can't imagine a more terrible fate.

Ambiguous loss happens to caretakers all the time—especially to those who are dealing with Alzheimer's patients or the mentally ill. The person you knew so well goes missing; he's there, but he's not really there. I remember that phenomenon all too vividly: I took care of my father when he was dying from lung cancer. At a certain point, the unrelenting pain along with all the drugs he was taking consumed his persona. Somehow the person in the hospital bed looked a lot like my father, but my father was already dead.

I wonder if I'm dead to my friend—if that's how people who abandon other people justify their behavior. I can't imagine living with such a dreadful thing on my conscience. He was well aware that abandonment is my very worst fear, that it completely destabilizes me. I'd made him promise over and over again that if and when our relationship ended, he'd let me know in no uncertain terms. And yet . . .

Breach of promise, says the lawyer in me.

Unbearable, says my bipolar brain.

And still I have to go on living, knowing that cruelty like this exists in the world; and that all I can do about it is govern my own expectations. There's nothing ambiguous about that—but it's still a life-changing loss.