COVID-19 and Ambiguous Loss

Stress in the face of a pandemic can take the shape of frozen grief.

Posted May 08, 2020

In this new COVID-19 reality we’re living, grief has become a daily experience. But for most, it isn’t the grieving of the death of a loved one, but a global, pervasive sense of loss that is tied to changes in daily routines, missing out on planned celebrations, and being physically separated from friends and family.

Logan Weaver/Unsplash
Source: Logan Weaver/Unsplash

The feelings of stress, sorrow, and frustration we feel at the loss of our normal lives is complicated. It isn’t our usual feelings of sadness or grief – we aren’t feeling a specific emotion due to the loss of a specific person or object. The kind of grief we are experiencing is especially challenging because it is a reaction to the ambiguity of losing more intangible parts of our lives. Many of us are no longer able to cleanly divide work from home, or paid time from play time.

We’re simultaneously joining virtual meetings, consuming the news, educating children, and checking on loved ones. The boundaries between what we know and what we don’t know about what is safe and what is science have become complicated. While we’re trying to find ways to soothe ourselves and each other, we’re cancelling birthdays, vacations, and weddings. We’re also losing scheduled surgeries, new jobs, the ability to pay rent, and, overall, the feeling that we can predict what will come next and that we are in control.

This type of loss, which can’t be concretely verified or easily resolved, is called “ambiguous loss" and is a term developed by Dr. Pauline Boss. Boss developed the idea of ambiguous loss to help explain the reactions people feel when experiencing grief that is marked by the inability to confirm a person’s whereabouts, their death, or their ability to come back and return to “normal.”

Edwin Hooper/Unsplash
Source: Edwin Hooper/Unsplash

Examples of ambiguous loss include a parent moving out of the home following divorce, the loss of an envisioned future in the face of a terminal illness, the loss of a person’s homeland and family they can no longer access following immigration, and no longer recognizing a grandparent with dementia.

Ambiguous loss prompts an especially challenging kind of grief: It is confusing, and disorienting, and defies popular ideas about “closure.” In other words, there is no clear “end” to the current COVID-19 pandemic – and that’s part of what makes our emotional experience of this disease so taxing. Existing in the not-knowing of our current lives feels untenable and unsustainable.

Coping with This New Kind of Grief

Because ambiguous loss can be so complex and distressing, it also requires a special kind of attention in order to cope. In other words, we won’t be able to find relief during this pandemic using solely our usual self-care skills or our typical ways of connecting with others. And for those of us who have attempted Zoom parties, new hobbies, bread baking, and exercise, chances are we’re starting to feel fatigued.

Engin Akyurt/Unsplash
Source: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

The first thing to know is that feeling distressed due to ambiguity is normal. The complicated grief we’re experiencing due to the shifting sands of our current lives, and the accumulation of impalpable losses, is valid. Naming the COVID-19 pandemic as an “ambiguous loss” and practicing accepting your (and others’) emotional reactions to it is critically important to begin the coping process. Name the ambiguity as the problem. If you’re feeling stressed, it’s not your fault.

Ambivalence – feeling conflicted emotions that seem at odds with each other – is also a common reaction to ambiguous loss. For example, “I hate being stuck at home, but I love spending more time with my partner.” “I wish this would end soon, but I’m worried about what life will look like when it does.” “I feel so fortunate my family is safe, but I feel guilty that there are others who have lost so much.” It can be helpful to share our ambivalence with others and hear their experiences of grief in order to bring these conflicting feelings to the surface and begin to process them.

It may also be helpful to focus on finding meaning, as Boss would emphasize. One way to do this is to practice both-and thinking. Without clear information about how this pandemic will continue to evolve, we observe people trying to make definitive decisions for themselves and getting stuck in opposition to one another. Instead, it’s helpful to think dialectically – holding two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, rather than focusing on “either-or.” In other words, “our way of life is both gone, and maybe not.” “This virus is a permanent part of our lives, and maybe temporary.” “Our freedoms have disappeared, and maybe we still have them.”

Another way to find meaning is to notice what is still present about your pre-COVID life, where you are resilient, and then sharing this with others. What are you still doing well despite the stress? What new things have you discovered about yourself or your family? Where are you thriving? Noticing these successes and then talking to others about their resilience helps us to be more flexible and open-minded.

Engin Akyurt/Unsplash
Source: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

Alternatively, it may be difficult to identify things that are going well or that remain close to “normal.” If that’s your experience as a result of the overwhelming ambiguity, it can be helpful to try small activities that you know you can accomplish in order to experience a sense of mastery. Taking small steps towards trying things you can achieve can help you feel successful, thereby softening your experiences of grief and feeling out of control.

This pandemic is isolating, as ambiguous losses often are. But because we are universally grieving, we can also know we are not alone. We will develop new rituals in the future, and we will experience those together. In order to prepare, it will be important for you to take care of yourself in the present, and unstick from the immobilizing nature of ambiguity.