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Pat and Tammy McLeod: Sharing Their Experience With Ambiguous Loss

Published on 03/17/2021


What is your life’s purpose?

Our purpose is to come alongside people wherever they are on their spiritual journey and help them take a next step that will lead to a flourishing communal life—one that is full of meaning and hope.

How are you living your purpose?

We co-authored the book Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was and Living Well with What Is. We do podcasts, radio and TV interviews, webinars, online and in-person talks to help others understand ambiguous loss. Pauline Boss, who coined the term, describes two types of ambiguous loss:

Physical Absence with Psychological Presence
Examples: Missing people due to war, terrorism, natural disasters, kidnapping, incarceration, divorce, adoption, immigration.

Psychological Absence with Physical Presence
Examples: Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, traumatic brain injury, chronic mental illness, addictions- drugs, alcohol, gambling.

According to Boss, the challenge of dealing with an ambiguous loss is learning to live well with both having and not having. She calls it the most stressful type of loss because with ambiguous loss there is no linear process of letting go, rarely is there acceptance, and there is never closure.

Additionally, ambiguous loss is rarely validated. For example, there are no public ceremonies unless someone dies. To help people be resilient in ambiguous loss we teach Boss’ six areas of focus: finding meaning, tempering mastery, reconstructing identity, normalizing ambivalence, revising attachment, and discovering hope.

As Chaplains at Harvard, we pastorally care for students and faculty. We assist them as they wrestle with life’s big questions of life: Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is my purpose in life? What is a flourishing life and how can I find it for myself and others? We teach, mentor, train, and coach  people in practices that make a community transformational for those who are in and around it.

With a counselor from Harvard University Health Services, Tammy co-leads Grieving Together groups and trains residence life staff to help students with ambiguous loss.

We are founding members of the Mamelodi Initiative—a non-profit in a South African township that connects Harvard students with at-risk youth in a mentoring and educational program to prepare them for college.

As certified trainers of Interpersonal Communication we help couples, teams, and individuals learn and practice the skills that can turn issues that cause conflict into the raw material for growth in intimacy and friendship.


How did you find your purpose?

We grew up in different parts of the country (Pennsylvania and Wyoming). In  college, we both began to wrestle with life’s big questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? What really makes me happy? For both of us, the persons who came alongside us and helped answer those questions were campus ministers who did then what we do now.

For most of our lives the problem of reconciling evil and suffering with a good, loving, and all- powerful God was a philosophical question. On August 5, 2008, it became an existential crisis when we received a phone call informing us that our son was being airlifted from a football field to a hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery. That grief journey has led us to what some might find a surprising answer to the problem of inexplicable pain and suffering.


What advice do you have for purpose seekers?

Beware of the influence of radical individualism on your life. Americans value their independence and individual rights. We often seek our individuality by severing restraints and resisting long term commitments. But cutting back our attachments and commitments can actually shrink the self rather than grow the self. What if we are made from the material of our communal life? I believe we are and that to be human is to live in committed, interdependent communion with God and others. Pursue relationships.

Take time to be silent and reflect on life’s big questions, and ask others who have answered those questions.



What resources do you recommend?
Check here for articles we have written and books about ambiguous loss
Check here to be introduced to the person who coined the term
The Search For Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God’s Eyes by Robert McGee


Connect with Pat and Tammy McLeod:
Contact page
Book: Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was and Living Well with What Is
Website: https://patandtammymcleod.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patandtammymcleod
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/patandtammymcleod/
Learn more about the McLeods’ experience with ambiguous loss in this YouTube video.

Pat and Tammy McLeod serve as Harvard Chaplains for Cru, an interdenominational Christian ministry. Tammy is also the Director of College Ministry at Park Street Church in Boston. She received her MA in Spiritual Formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Pat holds an MA in Theological Studies from the International School of Theology and an MA in Science & Religion and a PhD in Practical Theology from Boston University. They are founding members of the Mamelodi Initiative in the township of Mamelodi, South Africa—a project that connects Harvard students with at-risk youth in a mentoring and educational program to prepare them for college. Pat and Tammy, certified instructors for Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc., have been married for more than three decades and are parents to four grown children. They coauthored the book Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was and Learning to Live Well with What Is in which they share their journey into the world of ambiguous loss that began after their son suffered a traumatic brain injury playing football. Zach’s story received media coverage by ABC, NBC, CBS, and NPR. Recently they started COVID-19 Conversations on their website hoping to help others be resilient in ambiguous loss. For more information, please visit https://patandtammymcleod.com


HeleneTStelian Musing
I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE Courses, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.



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