“Let that which stood in front go behind, Let that which was behind advance to the front.” – Walt Whitman
The term ambiguous loss has come to mean less obvious losses. They are losses related to some level of uncertainty, lack of closure, or a sense of longing. An example would be missing a season of one’s life, such as an athlete who retires from playing ball professionally. Or a mother who looks at her child’s toys with longing, because he’s a teenager out with his friends now. Or a happily married person, who still misses the freedom and simplicity of single life. Or somebody who recently moved and realizes in the absence of the familiar how pleasant it was before. I could go on but you get the idea! It’s quite common.
As with changing seasons in nature – summer to fall – we are in constant transition. We are adapting to the ebb and flow of the novel and the familiar. Here are some ways I have found it helpful to cope with the less understood and less recognized ambiguous losses we all experience.
Give voice to the ambiguity of loss.
In regard to feelings, I once heard that “if you name it you can tame it”. Observe or sense what you are experiencing by quieting the mind, and going inward to ask yourself questions. Do I feel tense inside? Is my stomach upset? Is my face turning red? Observe or become mindful of what you feel by noticing your body sensations and responses. Describe the observed feeling in words, and label the feeling. “Oh, that tense, knot-like feeling deep in my stomach is fear and anxiety…” Next, participate by involving yourself completely in the moment. Combine what was observed and described to become fully present and engaged. From this place, you can make choices to best take care of yourself with compassion and self-awareness. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) creator, Dr. Marsha Linehan, calls this skillset the mindfulness “WHAT” skills. Using them can bring us to a state where we make wise, reasonable choices in the midst of emotional turmoil. She calls this the “wise mind”. DBT is useful stuff – more on that another time…
Here’s an example of naming it to tame it: I was walking into my office after a coworker had left the job to work elsewhere, and I felt sadness. I thought, “Why did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” It did not occur to me that I might just be missing my coworker’s presence and my “normal” workday. I grew accustomed to chatting with my prior coworker, seeing her belongings at her computer, and hearing about her weekend. This person did not die. This person did not stop being my friend. We were not even “close friends”. This person just got a new job and switched up her routine; and therefore mine, and it impacted me. Once I named this loss, I could acknowledge my feelings, feel them, and continue on. I could find myself some closure. For me, that looked like writing her an email to acknowledge that I missed her presence.
2. Learn and know your triggers.
Sometimes certain events, holidays, anniversaries, smells, or situations can trigger the feelings of loss from an earlier period in life. My “random” responses to triggered previous losses often surprises me. I call this ambiguous because the timing is vague. I find it helpful to find out what the correlation between your feelings and the impacting circumstance is so that you can prepare yourself, and seek the right kind of supports and coping strategies beforehand.
Here is an example: Picture the scenario where you just received great news! You called just about everyone in your phone that you needed to update: all the people you knew would be happy to celebrate with you. You scroll through to look for someone you’re sure you’ve forgotten, but you really did check friends and loved ones off your imaginary list. You may miss an ideal relationship you don’t yet have, for example. You recognize that this sense of longing points you in the direction of your goals and values.
Here is another example: A therapy client fell apart every time she had car trouble. She went from being a very can-do, independent woman, to a fragile and child-like girl in these instances. She described herself as “melodramatic, and bizarrely helpless” in these circumstances. One busy day, her car wouldn’t start. Despite calling AAA and getting the help she needed, she was hysterically crying the entire time her car was towed to the auto-body repair shop. When processing her reaction in therapy she realized that car troubles are triggers for her because she feels alone. The ambiguous loss here was the loss of a father-figure who handles this kind of stuff. She grieved long ago and evolved into a quite capable adult woman. Yet it pops up sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, until she connects the dots.
Let go of a timeframe.
It’s important to let ourselves have the space and time we need to feel our feelings, without pressure to move on. Even in an ambiguous loss situation, the grief has to run its course on its own time. Self-judgment just hinders and blocks the natural, normal and important process. Self-compassion and gentleness with oneself during grief, no matter how big or small the loss, is really important.
The Swiss psychiatrist and author, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, provided a lot of useful insights when she theorized about the Five Stages of Grief. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, one criticism of this theory, which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross readily acknowledged years after developing her theory, is that grief does not seem to actually follow a sequence with distinct stages. Furthermore, these stages are not measureable or distinguishable.
There isn’t a timeline, and it can be misleading to believe that you move from denial to sadness once and for all. And there may be additional stages, because the experience is unique to the individual. So it might be better to recognize that there are common experiences of grief rather than that there are timelines or stages one must experience to complete the grieving process.
Take a walk in nature.
To cope with transitions of any kind, we have to stay in touch with what is happening inside… So move your body…Just for five minutes is good enough… And especially move your body outside in nature. There are rich metaphors all around, and lessons just waiting. You will feel refocused and more grounded when you spend a little time moving your body in the fresh air.
Celebrate your ability to love and feel deeply.
The pain, hurt and conflicting emotions you feel associated with losing anything (person, place, thing, time, life experience, vacation, favorite possession, whatever it is) are strong indicators of your ability to love. You are a living being who cares A LOT. You feel A LOT. You live FULLY. There’s depth to your humanity. Within grief there is a lot of beauty, and on the other side of grief is freedom. Meaning, the only way is through. You don’t have to see that beauty right away. It is going to become more clear and apparent as you open to the natural seasons of the feelings. You may hate hearing it when you feel the pain the most, but with every loss there is opportunity for expansion.
I heard a wise man say, “I am glad to be alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” How refreshing, and how powerful are those words! I had to really take them in. Would you have it any other way? Maybe when you are deeply hurting and walking through the darkest night of the soul, these words feel impossible to say. But in the morning (again this is a metaphor and there is no actual timeframe) there is the light of day. It’s a different day and a different season, but still its full of life.
Thanks to writer Julia Cameron for her affirming mantra:
“Today, I allow the alchemy of divine love to transform a difficult ending into a new beginning. My heart is a phoenix and today I celebrate its flight.” – Julia Cameron, Transitions