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How to Navigate Ambiguous Loss During the Pandemic

How to Navigate Ambiguous Loss During the Pandemic

By Pam Dewey • February 18, 2021

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all coping with grief of some kind. You might have lost a loved one or a job. Or, you may be facing a lesser-known type of grief: ambiguous loss.

You miss your routines, gathering with friends and family, feeling safe, being able to attend events and make plans. The list seems nearly endless. Our lives have changed completely, and we don’t know when things will change back, which is where the ambiguity comes in.

Dr. Pauline Boss developed the term “ambiguous loss” to refer to people who had lost a loved one, but couldn’t confirm their death. But ambiguous loss also applies to our current reality. According to Psychology Today, “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.”

Here are some symptoms you may experience with ambiguous loss:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Anxious
  • Feeling irritable
  • Depressed
  • Unable to complete daily tasks
  • Feeling overwhelmed and crying frequently
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Racing thoughts

You’re allowed to grieve your loss

You may feel silly for being sad about not being able to go to concerts. But the truth is, your life has changed drastically, and you don’t know when it will change back. You miss the things that gave you joy and pleasure. That is perfectly reasonable.

You need to make space for your grief. Allow yourself to express these feelings, and don’t compare your grieving to others. In other words, don’t tell yourself that you have no right to feel sad because you haven’t lost a loved one. Your grief is real; you need to respect and honor this emotion.

Engage in both/and thinking

Dr. Boss suggests people engage in “both/and” thinking, particularly regarding the pandemic. In an article in the Pioneer Press, she states, “The first step is: Try to shift your thinking from absolute thinking — ‘It’s terrible … we’re going to die … I can’t cope with this’ — to ‘It’s a terrible stress right now, and I can learn to be more resilient because of it.’ It’s those both/and statements that will help to lower the stress in people facing ambiguous loss. ‘I am both afraid, and I am glad to be home with my children or my partner unlike at any other time.’” You can acknowledge the stress, but also try to find some good in your situation.

Try journaling or art-making

You may find that writing about what you’ve lost helps you explore and process these emotions. But also write about how you’re coping: what things are going well and making you feel better? Celebrate small victories. Art-making can also help you navigate these feelings. Here are a few ideas of art projects to get you started.

Find control where you can

Many things are out of our control right now, but you can still manage parts of your life. Developing a new routine may help. You could start your day with a cup of coffee and a mindfulness exercise. Or develop a regular exercise routine like running or doing yoga. Maybe you and your partner can try cooking dinner together every night while listening to music. You could also organize and declutter your house, perhaps starting with a closet. Start a movie night tradition where you make popcorn, get into your PJs, put on a mask and watch a favorite movie.

When you’re feeling cooped up, take a drive, go for a hike or walk around the neighborhood.

Keep checking in with your support network

Grief tends to be isolating. Even though we’re all experiencing grief, we process it differently. You may feel like you shouldn’t be upset, so you’ve been quiet about your sadness. But you have a right to grieve your loss and should talk about it. Reach out to someone you trust, and share how you’ve been feeling. Give them the space to do the same. And keep doing it. If you feel overwhelmed, it might be time to reach out to a mental health professional.

Grief is circular

You may have heard of the stages of grief, but there isn’t a certain way to move through grief. Nor do you have to grieve by feeling a certain way. Everyone grieves differently, and grief is circular. So you may think you’re over something, and find that anger or sadness hits you again months later. Particularly because we don’t know when the pandemic will end, it’s normal to keep processing these feelings.

The ambiguity of our current situation makes it hard to process. Give yourself a break. Recognize that the not-knowing is wearing you down. Then try writing about it, reaching out to a trusted friend, finding areas of your life you can control and engaging in both/and thinking.