Heart on a Leash

Reaching for Family

“The absent are always present.”

Carol Shields - The Stone Diaries

Understanding “Ambiguous Loss” is essential to understanding inmates in and out of prison. Ambiguous loss refers to a complicated, unresolved, frozen grief caused by ruptures in family relationships. It differs from loss due to death in two ways. First, there is loss of physical contact with a significant other who is still living. Triggers for ambiguous loss are: separation due to incarceration, foster placement (including children being separated from siblings), adoption, divorce, children moving in and out of the home, someone missing in action, separation due to immigration and deportation, and the refugee experience. Children with parents in prison are especially vulnerable to this primal wound. The second type of ambiguous loss is psychological absence even though the person is physically present. This includes absence due to mental illness, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic depression, and PTSD.

Mothers feeling the loss of their children due to life choices (at least 60% of women in state prisons have children) are often themselves the offspring of imprisoned parents. They had parents who didn’t act like parents. They had elders who were not wise or protective. Many were raised in foster homes or households with generations of emotionally absent, unreliable, missing, or unknown parents. And now they are mothers who didn’t act like mothers themselves and are tortured by memories, guilt and shame for repeating the pattern.

There are no sympathy cards, no ceremony or closure for the people now gone. Like trauma, grief lives in the body. Reconstructing one’s identity after prison means living with this unresolved grief – unfinished hurt.

While the outside world moves on, the incarcerated ask Who am I beloved to? Where is the daughter / sister/ aunt / niece / friend / grandmother and mother I could have been?

These stories are told from a single point of view – the mothers themselves. The voices of their children are not available here, but a child’s loss of their mother due to imprisonment is profound and often unaddressed. Mothers with adult children harbor the hope that someday their children will seek them out. The children they left become their hope for the future. Conversely, children don’t trust the mother who they feel abandoned them. Grown children of incarcerated women may also be prisoners themselves. Reunion is tough. It requires vulnerability between family members who have armored themselves. By encouraging children to visit on weekends, etc., the Journey House is a place for family reunification to begin.