COVID-19 has created a world in which we too often feel like we lack control. No longer can we jump in the car and run to the grocery store; we can’t allow our children to play with whomever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want; and we can’t plan a get-a-way, family gathering or even attend a church or synagogue service. The freedom of movement that we so cherish in our society has been removed and we are left with an odd feeling of what is called ambiguous loss.
Typically, loss is clear to us: someone has died or a relationship has ended; we are fired from our job or we have moved to a new city. In each of these examples, the object of our loss is gone and our task is to grieve that loss and eventually move on to what is now present in our lives. We can bring pleasant memories of our late loved one with us or we can review pictures of our old hometown, reminding us of the good, the joy and warmth from our past. On the other hand, we might need to deal with healing from the trauma of the pain of a bad relationship or explosive boss. In either case, the work ahead of us to move through this challenging transition tends to be fairly clear. Not so with ambiguous loss.
With ambiguous loss, the object of our grief is both here and not here, generating not only confusion, but very mixed feelings and a murky road ahead. Furloughed from your job, you neither lost your job nor enjoy the work and paycheck; your children are in school but learning from home; you are healthy but limited by social distancing. While we miss those parts of our lives that we took for granted and grieve what is no longer in our lives today, at the same time, we haven’t actually lost these experiences. Maybe we’ll be called back to our job, but it won’t be the same… or will it? We’re not estranged from our grandchildren, but we can’t visit them. We can’t visit, but we can enjoy FaceTime. Where does all this leave us and what do we do with our feelings? It’s all so very confusing!
One of the reasons that ambiguous loss is so challenging for us is that we tend to be hard-wired, so to speak, to believe that the world should be defined as either/or. We want to perceive the person, experience or event as either in our life or out. That’s it. Not knowing if someone or something is either in or out tends to leave us feeling a bit—or a lot—anxious. We want to wrap this thing up and know where in our psyche to put this ambiguously lost thing, which, in turn, we believe, will help us discern how to deal with it.
The ambiguous boundary—is my job mine or not? Are my kids going to school or not?—creates stress, which, compounded over time, can leave us feeling depressed, produce physical symptoms or generate conflict with those around us. The ‘not knowing’ can lead us to suffer from paralysis, as we delay decisions and struggle to figure out how to cope.
Our challenge in coping with ambiguous loss is to figure out ways to creatively adapt. Our first order of business is to figure out what we can and cannot do, change, or influence. Just making a decision of where to focus our energy is empowering and propels us toward feeling better. Below are some suggestions for coping with the ambiguous loss we are all experiencing, allowing us to better manage the stress.
1. Name the losses. Sometimes they are developmental rituals like graduation; others are more commonplace, like going to work every day. Naming allows us to recognize and make real what we are struggling with.
2. Become comfortable with the paradox of both/and. This takes time and practice, but is possible. One way to start is listing what you still have from that which has been lost, as well as that which you are missing. Both exist at the same time.
3. Create your own rituals. Many families designed their own graduation ceremonies or proms, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. No, these events are not exactly as you might have imagined them, but they are healing nonetheless. While you cannot solve the ambiguous loss through the ritual, you can still witness it and celebrate.
4. Seeking meaning out of an ambiguous loss can help us come to terms with it. For some, spirituality or religion can help us be more comfortable with the unknown, making peace with the ambiguity, and creating meaning.
5. Small steps of “good work” can help us find meaning. Whether you are invested in Black Lives Matter or voter registration, figuring out how to be the best home school teacher you can be or baking cookies for health care workers, your good works will provide meaning in your life and lift you up out of the stress of your ambiguous loss.
6. Put on a positive attitude. We have a choice: we can perceive this ambiguous loss through a negative lens, expressing our anger and blaming what—or who—we believe to be the cause; or, on the other hand, we can generate a more positive story, one that highlights our resilience in dealing with the challenges, focuses on gratitude and has hope in the end.
7. With a goal of developing a more positive mindset, we need to recognize certain truths, such as, the world isn’t always just and fair; and some things just won’t change. Being angry that the whole COVID thing just isn’t fair, or questioning “Why now, why me?”, is like hitting our proverbial heads against the wall—it just won’t get us anywhere.
8. Be aware of your identity shifts and embrace your new identity. One of the challenges that so many of us face is letting go of a former identity and embracing the new one in front of us. For instance, we might need to let go of the identity of a worker that goes into the office and integrate a new identity of a home schooler; or morph an identity of a busy, active retiree into that of a creative quilt maker or delicious bread baker.
9. Focus on your strengths and remember how you have coped in the past. Even in times of social isolation, connection to others is frequently the best medicine.
10. Find hope where you can: laugh at how ridiculous life has become; practice patience, and find forgiveness. At the same time, be creative with options: don’t close the door to new ideas until you have tested them.
I’ve listed a lot of options for moving through this rough time during which we all are struggling with some form of ambiguous loss. Remember, we all have way more resiliency than we often think we do. When we reach down to pull up our strength, we find all kinds of skills and past successes to draw upon. Just as important, as noted above, be patient. Start with naming your losses because without recognizing them, we can’t do anything about them. From there…just pick some place to start. In the end, you will feel better as you work through the loss—not necessarily to an end, but to a place called peace.
We offer telehealth counseling appointments! JFS Orlando’s licensed counselors are specialized in various areas and are here to support you. Medicare, Medicaid and almost all commercial insurances are accepted. Call 407-644-7671 to schedule an appointment today!
Dr. Eloise Stiglitz, PhD is a licensed psychologist. Her passion is helping people through challenging transitions, whether it includes a crisis like a divorce, death, move or career shift, or a personal evolution centered around sexuality, spirituality or disability. She works with seniors, helping them through their difficult times, young adults creating their sense of self, as well as all those in between struggling with the many life challenges that we all face. Her specialties include women’s issues, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and addictions, sexuality, grief and relationship concerns.
Eloise believes that the therapy relationship is a powerful healing tool, empowering people to make the desired changes in their lives. Her eclectic therapy style integrates cognitive-behavior, Neuro-linguistic programming, and solution-oriented interventions with a relational-developmental, client-centered perspective. More importantly, she connects with her clients through intensive and caring listening, truly open-hearted support and a delightful sense of humor.