Which New Normal? Understanding Ambiguous Loss
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The phrase “adjusting to our new normal” has been used exhaustively since March 2020. It has been nine months—of anticipation, fear, uncertainty, change, grief, loss, emotional highs, and emotional lows. As someone who recently gave birth, I know how long nine months can feel. I’m ready to bring my baby home from the hospital and start a predicable path of normalcy that follows a developmental trajectory. But that is not the case. With new restrictions in place, and the threat to our collective wellbeing at the highest it’s ever been, we are once again being asked to cope with that ever-moving finish line.
It’s difficult to find a pattern of coping when we are continually being asked to draw upon our resources, access our reserves, and forge new ones. It’s especially hard when you don’t even know what the next change or threat will entail. Sometimes it may feel that all we are doing is fending off one loss after another. We are all being asked to stomach a great deal of ambiguity. This, to me, sounds a whole lot like ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss pioneer, Family Social Scientist and Family Therapist, Dr. Pauline Boss states that ambiguous loss is any loss that is unclear or lacks a resolution.
Lack of normalcy? Check
Lack of normalcy with no clear end in sight? Check, check.
There are two types of ambiguous loss. One entails a physical absence where the person is very much psychologically present. Examples of this are: prisoners of war, kidnappings, divorce, abandonment, and missing friends, family, and children due to COVID-19 when you never know if/when you’ll see them again. The second entails a psychological absence where the person remains physically present. Examples of this are: dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, severe mental illness, addiction, traumatic brain injuries, and chronic illness. In both types of ambiguous loss, grief is frozen, leaving you constantly searching for answers. Not knowing and being in limbo can create feelings of persistent uncertainty, helplessness. It may even lead us to wonder if we are allowed to, or should grieve.
3 Ways to Cope with Ambiguous Loss
Below you will find my three most recommended ways to deal with ambiguous loss:
1. Humanize Grief and Loss
Generally, I would start my recommendations with normalizing the experience. I have recently shifted my language from “normalizing” to “humanizing.” We are all grieving. We have all lost something. Grief and loss are universal. Comparative suffering (e.g., my loss is bigger than theirs, or their loss is bigger than mine) is not helpful. Each person’s experience, emotions, and trajectory with loss is unique. The thing about grief is that there is no endpoint, it is not a task for you to achieve, and it is not a competency you can master. The endpoint is not closure. Closure is a myth. We learn to live with loss. Step 1: humanize loss.
2. Tolerate Concurrent Thoughts: Both/And Thinking
This is a learned skill where you practice holding contradictory thoughts. This is a different way of thinking for those who feel most comfortable with binary thinking (e.g., it’s either this way or that way). Entertain the idea of holding both sides. In relation to the pandemic, it may look like this: “Everything that is going on in the world is so horrible. There is so much suffering, and yet, I’m able to stay closer to home and embrace the simple joys that are in my ordinary routines.” Another may be: “I’m so frustrated with never knowing week to week which model of learning my kids are in, and I’m grateful to be able to spend more time in their physical presence.” Understanding that contradictions can coexist, and experimenting with both/and thinking are ways to cope with ambiguous loss. Step 2: practice both/and thinking.
3. Focus on Meaning Making
There are various pathways one can take while living with loss. Family resilience expert, Dr. Froma Walsh talks about grief as something that osculates and does not follow a clear linear path or stages like we’ve previously been led to believe1-2. How we make sense of—or make meaning from—our circumstances, can strongly impact our ability to psychologically cope. This entails finding meaning and hope grounded in reality, making sense of circumstances, celebrating what remains, and creating past/present/future narratives. Resilience emerges through our struggles. It is not because of the pandemic that we emerged stronger, it is because we struggled that we emerged stronger. Coping + adaptation + positive growth = resilience. Recognizing your capacity for resilience is another way to make meaning. Integrate your resilience response into your new narrative. Step 3: make meaning.
Additional Resources on Ambiguous Loss
- Ambiguous Loss and the 2020 Pandemic | State of Mind Podcast
- Living the Questions: It’s Really Settling in Now, the Losses Large and Small | On Being with Krista Tippet Podcast
- AMBIGUOUS LOSS: Helping Teens and Others Cope with Lost Milestones | University of Minnesota Alumni Association
- Feeling Sad During Hard Times Is Not Depression| Psychology Today
1. Walsh, F. (2020). Loss and resilience in the time of COVID‐19: Meaning making, hope, and transcendence. Family process, 59(3), 898-911.
2. Walsh, F. (2016). Applying a family resilience framework in training, practice, and research: Mastering the art of the possible. Family Process, 55(4), 616-632.