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Family Business Matters       09/08 11:38

   Recognize Loss to Help Heal

   Ambiguous loss, where there is unresolved grief, complicates the family 
business and needs to be acknowledged for healing to occur.

Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   "Our hunger for absolute certainty is rarely satisfied even in the 
relationships we believe are permanent and predictable." -- Pauline Boss, 
"Ambiguous Loss: Learning To Live With Unresolved Grief"

   We have all felt loss and the pain that results from it in our lives. Losing 
a loved one, a job, a friend or a business are some of the situations in which 
we experience pain. Usually, there is a ritual or a process that signifies the 
permanence of that loss: a funeral, a final goodbye, a last payment or the sale 
or closing of a business.

   But, what happens when a loss doesn't have a sense of finality, when it 
isn't clear that the person is gone or the situation is resolved? Pauline Boss, 
a family therapist and researcher, developed the theory of "ambiguous loss" to 
define those conditions in which people may physically be present but are 
psychologically absent. The person may still be around, but something is 
missing from your interaction with them.

   An example of ambiguous loss is Alzheimer's disease: A loved one may 
physically be with you but is mentally gone. He or she may interact with you 
but without the normalcy of prior conversations. We really have no ritual to 
demarcate our loss as that loved one gradually slips deeper into the disease, 
but sometimes our grief at this loss is more intense than even a death.


   As I consider her theory, I'm reminded of two family-business situations in 
which ambiguous loss causes family dysfunction. The first is the loss of a 
family relationship because of business conflicts or disagreements over assets. 
The second is the loss of identity associated with one's decreasing business 
role or contribution. Consider the following situations.

   First, the loss of a relationship. In several instances I know of, family 
members have stopped interacting with one another because of fights in the 
business. Disagreements about how daily business responsibilities are carried 
out, struggles over decision-making authority or frustrations with how to deal 
with vendors, employees or community members build until a blowup occurs.

   After such emotional explosions or even less-dramatic expressions of 
disagreement, family interaction begins to recede. Members spend less time at 
family events or engaging socially. They begin steering clear of one another in 
the business. Over time, the tension becomes part of the business, and people 
adjust their daily patterns and family routines. Avoidance of people and 
important issues becomes the norm. In some cases, grandkids are withheld from 
grandparents. In others, adult children are lost to, or become absent from, 
their family of origin.

   In all cases, people feel the pain, but the loss is not clear or final. 
There may still be a physical presence, but there is little social or 
psychological attendance. We grieve the loss of relationships even while 
knowing the other person is still around.


   The second kind of ambiguous loss is the loss of identity or role during a 
generational transition. The senior generation has been intimately involved in 
the daily workings of the business for decades. But, as the next generation 
takes over operations, the parents struggle to define their best contribution 
to the organization.

   As they move from making all the decisions to watching others make most of 
them, or from physically doing work to being less able to do so, they often 
grieve the loss of their prior role in the business. They are still physically 
present, but they are not fulfilling the specific role they once held. And, if 
they are unsure about how best to contribute in the future, their confusion, 
their loss and their grief show up as stress or tension in the business.

   When considering all the ways loss might affect the family business, a more 
complicated picture begins to emerge. Acknowledging the loss is the first step 
in beginning to heal.


   Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 
415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email

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