Thesis Title

Ambiguous Loss of Dementia: Identity Exploration through Narrative Inquiry and Collage

Graduation Date

Spring 2020

Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy

Degree Granting Institution

Notre Dame de Namur University

Program Name

Art Therapy


Caryl Hodges, Phd

First Reader

Amy Backos, PhD, ATR-BC

Second Reader

Erin Partridge, PhD, ATR-BC


Adult children of those living with dementia are at risk of experiencing the ambiguous loss of losing their parent’s remembered personality, yet still maintaining their physical presence. Having no physical evidence of loss creates a disconcerting grief process and possible identity crisis. Boss (2006) suggests this type of loss can be eased by finding meaning, discovering new hope, and reconstructing identity. Prior to reconstructing identity, this study sought to understand how ambiguous loss affects identity. Eight participants contributed through collage making, a semi-structured interview, the New General Self-Efficacy Scale, and reflecting on the Hero’s Journey. Collage making, an approachable art form, is appropriate for exploring identity as it mimics the gathering and organization involved in identity formation. How identity has been shaped by ambiguous loss was explored through the theoretical lens of narrative inquiry and art therapy, revealing themes of duty, gratitude, and gaining new perspectives. Introductory stages of the Hero’s Journey were reported by participants up to four years after their parent had passed away; whereas later stages were reported by those whose parent had passed away more than four years prior to the interview. Overall findings have implications for supporting family members of those with dementia by helping them to manage stress of new roles, decreasing guilt, and honoring parents in affirming ways. Individual therapy and art therapy are suggested. In assessing how deeply participants’ parents were interwoven with their identities, further research is needed to determine identity recreation as an appropriate practice with ambiguous loss.