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When we can't move on

I recently listened to On Being’s podcast host Krista Tippet and family therapist and author Pauline Boss discuss ambiguous loss, an idea developed over 20 years ago to describe the grief we live with, remember, and recognize.

It recedes, returns, but does not go away.

A leading expert on loss, Boss has been called to the scene of many disasters. By her own account she is not particularly brave nor considers herself a first responder. Yet her perspective has helped families recover.

How do families cope with missing loved ones from the Vietnam War, 9/11, a downed airliner? The ambiguity lies in the lack of resolution. And then there is the incremental loss that comes with a sneakier foe, dementia – a pervasive loss Boss has researched closely. How do caregivers build resilience for this long goodbye? It requires both/and thinking, the capacity to hold two opposing ideas in your mind. The loved one is both here and not here, physically present but psychologically absent.

Yet our American culture is oriented towards mastery. Get over it. Move on. Find closure. Pauline Boss finds both the word and the concept of closure unhelpful. Closure is perfect for describing business deals and road conditions but inadequate to describe relationships.

Living with loss is sometimes the best we can do. My father’s personality faded over a decade with Alzheimer’s. He was physically present but progressively mentally absent. My mother lived with the loss of her lifelong companion as she loved him until the end. And loss persists living with any incurable illness such as Parkinson’s, ALS, cancer.

There is the sorrow of what might have been – life’s normal trajectory- and what is increasingly beyond your reach – the activities you used to master. You live with the loss – its underlying presence that surfaces at times and makes you feel blue.

Divorce epitomizes ambiguous loss particularly when children are involved. Co-parenting requires facing this loss head on repeatedly. It’s not possible to shelve the whole thing and walk away.

Ambiguous loss is rarely pathological or put more simply, it is normal to feel sad.

We are living with ambiguous loss right now. We do not know when this pandemic will end. We are all homesick for life pre-COVID-19. Our lives have been upended.

The list of big and little losses is long. It does not read the same for everyone. Lives lost. Livelihoods lost. Special events lost. Daily patterns lost. This pandemic has ruptured the flow of our lives and exposed the foundations.

The yogic tradition speaks to the centrality of impermanence. Everything changes. All that is true is the present. Deciding to accept what is within our control – in this case, social distancing and mask wearing – and what is not – the maddening politicization of our times – shapes our energetic response. Yet I cannot say I’m responding serenely to this pandemic and find it all inexplicably exhausting. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

So how do we build up our tolerance for ambiguity and get through the days ahead?

Boss suggests small things – simple rituals, social connection, little kindnesses. And suspend cataloging whose griefs are bigger or smaller; maybe even feel less guilty if you’re one of the lucky ones.



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