Ambiguous Loss and Collective Grief

This piece was originally written in three separate newsletters between 3/28/20 and 4/21/2020. I considered editing it to make it a bit more evergreen, but I feel it is am important record of a difficult and important time. Spring of 2020, particularly in my home at the time of Brooklyn, NY was a huge pivot point that we couldn’t quite see yet. I imagine much of it still applies to many or you in certain ways, or at least you remember it.  I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate and gather what is helpful.

What is ambiguous loss? Where can we begin?

Pauline Boss coined the term Ambiguous Loss as the experience of a person who is either physically present but emotionally absent, or physically absent but emotionally present. This was originally conceptualized in relation to those with loved ones who were missing, or caretaking for the terminally or chronically ill, but I feel that it could also be extended to help understand our collective experience now.  A frequent dialog recently is that we are not only grieving what we have already lost, but also anticipating loss; it’s like we are moving through a crisis in slow motion, while also feeling as if time is standing still. Someone astutely shared with me week that it feels like “life has ended“ in a way. There is a deeply ambiguous quality to this time of grief that is very heavy and confusing.

So I’ve been contemplating the prevailing ideas around grief recovery searching for answers on how to move through this tragic time we are living through. I am reminded of how when I would supervise therapists working in a therapeutic bereavement camp for children, I would become overwhelmed by physical fatigue; it was as if in the absence of doing the more direct work I could feel even more acutely the weight of loss, the almost overpowering sense of inertia that grief causes.  

One of the most important, but most difficult, parts of grief and ambiguous loss is finding a way to go on living. And we are in a tremendous state of ambiguity now, making it even more difficult to process the experience (because it has not ended). In the field of bereavement we often say that closure is a myth; grieving doesn’t stop, it only changes over time. The goal is not to “move on” but to keep moving forward. To renegotiate your relationship with what was, to find peace with not knowing what comes next, is a necessary part of making space for who you will need to become to come out the other side. We are tasked with needing to lean into the uncertainty as we discover who we really are with so much stripped away. 

Another important task of grieving to make meaning of the experience, not necessarily of the tragedy, death or loss, but to find meaning and growth in your experience.  Certainly we are occupying a wide range of loss at this moment, but in the restriction of freedom and choices I see us all as being in a childlike state. And when children grieve they are often most distressed by their loss of routine, the smaller details that show how life has changed forever. It’s not that there aren’t deeper feelings as well, but the every day “sting” is what we can access the most. Many of us are fortunate in ways that others aren’t, and many of us can look at others who seem to have more resources; but we are all having individual and personal losses that are disrupting the connection to self, to purpose, and to meaning. It feels critical to identify the ways we can utilize the information being revealed to continue growing and emerge from this challenging time with more wisdom, self knowledge, and connection to what matters.

Below are two different exercises for exploring and understanding your individual experience of loss. The first deals primarily with cognitive and insight-based processing, finding expression of varying responses you’re having consciously. The second is more oriented on the somatic level, what is being held in the body and the unconscious.

Therapeutic letter writing

To begin, identify the primary emotions that are coming up for you recently, such as anger, confusion, sadness, or boredom. Pick at least three and write a letter from the part of you that is feeling that emotion. Allow it to be distinct and speak in its own voice. For example, make space for the part of you that might be very concerned with others as well as the part of you that is worried for yourself. Make space for the part of you that is feeling detached and just wants to do normal things and “go back to the way it was.” When you’re done read each out loud, and decide how you want to store, transform, express, or even destroy (if appropriate, such as with more toxic emotions like shame) each letter. If you’re inclined to it, I like to fold my letters into origami, picking a shape that metaphorically captures what I need to process.

Heart opener

Lie on your back and place your hands on your chest, either hand over hand, or place one hand on the upper chest and the other on the sternum (either side of the heart). Begin to take deep and full breaths, deep into your belly. As you continue breathing, imagine a ball of pure energy just above your chest. When it feels bright and full, allow it to start raining down over your chest, like a shower or waterfall. Allow your emotions to surface as you continue to breathe slowly and deeply. Take a deep inhale and as you exhale, let your chest relax completely. Repeat a second time, and on the third time imagine that on your back between your shoulder relaxes you can allow an energetic opening to form and release what is burdening you. I like to think of it like pulling the plug in a full sink. Letting the visualized energy rain down as you use each complete exhale to soften your chest and release through your back. Continue until it you feel ready to return to your normal breath. Repeat as often as necessary.  If you are a reiki practitioner or are receiving reiki, that would be a great time to incorporate this exercise.

Moving through loss and accepting inevitable change

Grief work differs from other types of therapeutic work in its absolute rooting in existential fear and trauma.  Perhaps ideally, all therapeutic work would have a center here, but with grief it is inescapable.  Both in the literal sense of coping with the death of a significant person and with the loss of something which is important, we can’t deny that this is a universal trauma.  Sooner or later, we will all experience it.  

Grief unfolds on its own timeline, and time even seems suspended.  A week can feel like barely any time at all and unbearably long.  Over my years of working in bereavement I held space for hundreds groups of grieving children, parents, and families, I have experienced firsthand how even if the loss is not yours there is no way not to be impacted by it.  On the somatic level, grief carries a tremendous weight and fatigue. 

Because of the alteration of time, combined with the disbelief of what has happened, there is typically a dramatic ebb and flow of connecting with the reality of what has happened and feeling numb.  There may be stretches of time where we experience some much needed detachment and avoidance, we subconsciously tell ourselves that this new normal is fine- that it’s not really so different or maybe things haven’t really changed and one day we’ll wake up with this being only a distant and unpleasant dream. Then suddenly something happens, be it a conversation, a bit of news, some alteration to our routine, and suddenly the truth of what happening comes crashing in.  

We become stunned and overwhelmed, or we may channel that into anxiety, engaging in obsessive behaviors to regain a sense of control.  It is completely normal to experience these waves, and we must give ourselves permission to move in and out; and at the same time, the more we can push back against the avoidance AND push back against the panic and hopelessness, we can find greater equilibrium.  This is what it means to stay with what is real, in the “both/and,” acknowledging that things have both changed and not changed, we are different and the same, this will end and it will not end.

In our relational worlds we are also experiencing changes.  Frequently we are surprised by the people close to us that are a grounding support, a place where you can be fully yourself, and those who for their own reasons need something different than you.  In grief counseling we often speak of how common it is to avoid the subject of death; in fact many people can’t even say the words “death” or “died,” needing to replace it with something softer like “gone” or “passed away.” It is a curious phenomenon that people you might have expected to be a great support are unable to cope with the weight of your experience, while others come out of the woodwork and surprise you with their presence and wisdom.  

At this moment we are all in various stages of loss and it’s important to remember that we all have varying capacities to process in real time.  It is true that we can help mitigate the long-term challenges of grief by being more present for our experience, but the pace and manner in which we do that is determined by our inner resources.  This is not something to pass judgement over, it is simply a reflection of the particular details of a person’s individual experience as it relates to the collective experience. You may need to be more flexible and compassionate towards those who are struggling to cope while also honoring the disappointment or abandonment you may be feeling.

Below are two more exercises for increasing awareness and facilitating deeper processing. First we work on the cognitive and conscious level, then move into the somatic level.

Relational inventory

Write a list of the people closest to you. One at a time, begin to list the ways you have been able to mutually support each other, and well as the unmet needs.  Give yourself time to be present with the feelings that come up.  When you have gone through the whole list, allow yourself to be aware of those in greatest attunement with you at this moment.  And with those people with whom you have experienced disappointment, begin a list of how you might individually (in your own consciousness) work to address those unmet needs.  Begin with compassion for yourself, honor the feelings that your having and why it is painful at this time.  Then extend that inquiry to the other person: why might they be feeling and acting this way? In what ways can I be more compassionate to them? And what boundaries might I need to have in order to hold space for my experiences?  Take as much time as you need to really feel both, the compassion for yourself and compassion for those you feel disconnected from.

Grounding and expanding

This exercise is loosely based on the “column of light” prompt.  Find a comfortable position sitting or standing, and bring your attention to your breath. Allow yourself to find a comfortable and easy pace and depth of breathing.  Feel the weight of your body pushing down against the chair or floor, feeling the supportive pull of gravity.  This force of gravity is holding you all the time, keeping you from floating away- allowing you to drift across the surface of the earth without losing more than momentary contact. Begin to connect with the muscles and joints of the legs, feeling their energy and ability to support you, to connect you to the earth.  Imagine that your legs can grow longer, extending down into the ground like roots; be curious about how far they need to root down for you to feel unwavering support.  You might even want to take this all the way down to the molten core of the earth. Connect to the sensation that you’re feeling now, and anchor it.  

When you are fully anchored and grounded, bring your awareness to the top of your head.  Feel the energy of your heart moving upwards towards the top of your head.  Let it begin to stretch, energetically and in your field of vision, gradually above your head.  Let it travel through the floors or roof above you, above the buildings and streets of your neighborhood, above your city or town.  As you allow that expansion upwards, notice the changing temperature of the air, the changing sounds around you, the light and the weather.  Continue drifting upwards into the sky, taking a few pauses to see your energy still connecting down into the ground.  

When you feel you have moved high enough, think about allowing the energy to expand outwards, like ripples in the water or opening an umbrella.  Stay in the place of grounding and expansion for as long as you like.  When you are done you can gradually allow yourself to be aware of the room, allowing your physical body to be in it’s usual orientation while trying to hold on to the sensation of connecting downwards, while expanding upwards.

Numbness and detachment

In particular for helping professionals, caregivers, and first responders, a certain amount of detachment feels necessary. In order to do my job, be present for people and stay grounded I need to push certain thoughts and feelings out of my mind- at least temporarily. I often speak to new professionals about how this skill; being able to temporarily put certain experiences on a shelf in order to do your job well and be present for those you hold space for, but then skillfully retrieve and process those feelings promptly afterwards, is key to longevity in direct work with others. If you get into the habit of suppressing these feelings unconsciously they will quickly overwhelm you. Because as the years go by there will rarely be a time to “catch up” on feeling . It just keeps coming…

 I generally consider myself skilled in this regard but the last few weeks in particular have really challenged my ability to keep up. Part of this is because although I have practices to access the deeper feelings I also can feel that there is the risk of falling into something that would affect my ability to function. I don’t think you need to be a therapist or space holder to relate to that feeling.

This is really the essence of traumatic grief. The very ways that we MUST cope, in order to survive (psychologically or physically) are also creating their own problems. Blocking us from feeling embodied, feeling joyful, feeling alive. There’s a concept in neurological trauma theory that the evolutionary purpose of traumatic stress on the physiological level is to prepare the body for action while maintaining the feeling of homeostasis; this is to say that while our bodies are ready to fight, flight, or freeze, the message we hear in our minds is “I’m ok, this is ok, I will be ok.” When that initial response wears off our way coping with the pain and unknown is to avoid. There have been a few times in my life where I have been able to observe my own trauma response in real time and although it’s interesting it honestly doesn’t help much. When we’re in it we have to cope the best we can and accept that some of it will have to wait.

When you’re moving through collective grief, you can’t process it all in real time.  When the acute crisis ends we will have a deep wound to heal. This collective trauma is still unfolding and it’s going to take time to recover.

Epilogue 1/9/2023: Compiling these particular newsletters here was painful to revisit.  I never could have imagined the timescale of this experience, all that has happened since.  I don’t believe that the processing has really begun on a collective level; most are either still in the acuteness, or have detached and tried to simply “move on.”  But certainly a big lesson for me, integrated around this time last year (2022) was to stop waiting to make my plans.  You never know what’s going to happen.  Shit is always happening.  You can always change a plan to meeting changing conditions, but in this new world I can’t afford to wait to start really living. We could be waiting forever.  What is the point of simply existing without striving for what really matters to you? It started to change my life dramatically, but it also opened a door to start grieving through living.

%d bloggers like this: