Archives for posts with tag: ambiguous loss

My son and I were talking yesterday about the amount of trauma and loss that this pandemic will bring. He is a young adult and is often the one to bring balance to my knee jerk A or Z reaction to many things. I wondered aloud about the long term negative emotional impact of this on the young folks, as he too, was sent home from grad school, just months before finishing. We talked about how impossibly hard it must be for so many kids, missing the last months of their senior year especially, because it is a time where all the reward and fun happens. It is a time where they were preparing to say goodbye, yet now forced to do so prematurely, and in days. We talked about other losses such a friend’s wedding coming up, and about his sister who works in sports, losing her job. And how in this season of celebration, lots is lost.

He is wise, always has been. He offered his perspective that this loss would change a generation, especially a generation to whom nothing serious like this has ever happened. And he is right. It will. But it will change all of us, even those who lived through 9/11 and other wars. No one is exempt.

I am a psychologist who deals with trauma issues daily in the kids I see. Suffice it to say it’s not rocket science to recognize the high-level trauma that will result in this pandemic.

On that level, there will be a horrific residual impact and psychic toll for our healthcare workers as they are overworked and are faced daily with the existential trolley problem of deciding who lives and dies. The agony for healers who have no miracle drug to throw at this and not enough ventilators for all will haunt them.  The impact of exposing themselves to a virus that could kill them will echo for years. Trauma and its slimy insidious smoke will creep into the corners of all of our brains. Many of us will lose loved ones and lose our homes. Children will lose elderly caretakers, and families will face eviction and financial ruin.

But that trauma stuff is a story for another day. After this is over.

But, where there is trauma, there is the sentinel event of loss.

And where there is loss, there is grief.

And where there is a sudden shocking loss, there is the ambiguous loss of so many things.

I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge this right now, and spend some of our time while quarantined or distanced, talking about it. It will be, as they say, an ounce saved toward a pound of cure.

I pointed out to my son the layers upon layers of loss people are experiencing now, and how folks really don’t know what to do with it or express it this floaty/dread/angry/loss/sad/shock/weepy/pit in your stomach/lonely feeling.

People don’t understand that the complex constellation of feelings I just described is grief. Grief for ambiguous losses. We must open some talk about this now.

Imagine if you will when a bomb goes off. We hunker, we hide, we deal with the explosion. It is often months later when we come out and start picking up the pieces that we begin realizing all that was lost. This is what will happen after the crisis of this pandemic is over.

Often, it is then that we begin to grieve the more intangible losses. This happened to me with cancer treatment, during the crisis I survived. But a year later, as I began tiptoeing around the shards on the ground, I realized all the ambiguous losses I had, and which I needed to grieve. The loss of the sense that I would live a long life, the loss of school plays I had not seen, the loss of the sureness that I would see my daughter walk down the aisle. The intangibles. And with each of those very wispy losses, all the stages of grief would have to happen, shock, anger, denial, bargaining, and depression.

Today, what is happening this moment, as we distance in our homes, as kids scramble to pack up dorm rooms, as workers are told to stay home and as a myriad of joyful and fun and social events are canceled, we are in shock, we are talking about how crazy this is, how stupid this is. We are in the first stage of grieving these ambiguous losses. But we don’t recognize it yet.

We have lost so, so much already. And no one has really talked about it.

An ambiguous loss is a loss we can’t quite get our hands around. The ambiguity speaks to the loss of dreams and futures imagined-the loss of things hoped for and for feelings anticipated. It’s the loss of those wispy, hard to get your hands around yet real beliefs about the metrics of the world. The loss of the steadfast feeling of our safety, and a sense that we live in a world where things are just, people do the right thing, and rewards are fairly certain.

This loss often happens when bad things happen to good people. And right now, lots of bad things are happening to good people.

The grief attached to these things is just as real no matter if you prepared for and anticipated the losses, or if you were blindsided by the enormity of this pandemic this week. I for one had time to prepare mentally, I saw it coming.  But admittedly even I, an anxious little information junkie soul, had no idea the immensity of all that I would lose.

For others, it was a complete T-bone blindside this week when things ramped up exponentially because they had, for months, avoided consideration of loss, thinking, it’s “just the flu, people are overreacting.”

The word ambiguous doesn’t mean it’s confusing or not real, but more so, that it’s something you can’t easily get your hands around. It’s a loss that doesn’t have the defined edges and protocols, like the loss of a parent or spouse does. It’s the loss that people who miscarry children feel.  It’s kind of like walking around with a pit in your stomach, wondering why you feel like crying. It’s under-recognized. A lot of us felt this in our gut the days after 9/11, but for our young adults, it’s a first.

With this pandemic, we are experiencing these losses right out of the gates. The loss of things we looked forward to and the loss of things we dreamed about for years, over our lifetime, or even for just months. The pandemic has snatched these dreams away from us. It has stolen events like vacations, weddings, and celebrations like graduations.

We have lost the experience of human connection that fulfills us found in sports and church, where for some, it was the only human interaction of the week, and the connection was greatly anticipated.

Here is the rub. These losses are deep and hard but are considered “first world problems.” And that is where we have lost permission to grieve and to talk about it.

This is the season of reward for many, the last months of our kids’ senior year, no matter what or where, is the cherry on top of years of hard work. Special ceremonies, senior nights, parties and spring breaks. All “the lasts” have become ones we did not anticipate, they have happened when we didn’t know it. Our kids didn’t know it would be their last dinner at the dining hall together, the last time in the student union, or maybe even the last time on campus.

It is the season of rewards which won’t likely come, like a sporting event final for a hard-fought-for season and the Olympics.

And yet again we get chided if we feel sadness, “first world problems.”

The most profound ambiguous loss we are experiencing is the loss of safety/security. Some folks are for the first time in their life, realizing that the boogeyman is real. There is such loss in realizing that he can indeed get under your bed, despite what you felt were certain insulating factors.

The loss of jobs, the loss of health, the loss of a home, and the loss of sureness that this could never happen to you is profound. I wrestled hard with this when I got cancer. Security being gone is an enormous loss.

The loss of your very first world ability to go to a hockey game safely, without possibly dying weeks down the road, is a profound hit to the psyche. Yet we feel small for admitting it.

We have lost beliefs and ideals. Our beliefs about the rewards of working hard will offer us secure housing, financial stability and the ability to retire. That belief that if you work hard and pay your rent, and if you are a good employee, you will keep your job. If you diligently put into your IRA all your life, you could retire one day.

The belief about who you are is another loss. The belief that you of all people would never be one of those people who defaults on car loans, gets evicted or files bankruptcy, and yet, whelp, here you are.

The loss of your belief in the security that hospitals will be equipped to give you all the care you should need when you need it has evaporated as we watch the medical teams in Italy have to make impossible decisions about who gets treatment.

The belief that our leaders will protect us mentally, physically and emotionally is shaky right now, and that is core loss stuff right there.

The loss of the belief that you of all people, don’t have to worry about having toilet paper to wipe your kerdunkerdunk sounds funny and silly but is quite profound.

It’s shattering to lose innocence, it’s traumatic to feel things were stolen from us, and it is very sad to miss the things we hoped for and anticipated.

All ambiguous losses.

These losses are not validated, they are often not shared, and they are lonely losses. These are the kind of losses people don’t show up with casseroles for. The kind we are sheepish to admit.

My point is this. There are a million floaty wispy losses in this pandemic. There is lots to grieve here ALREADY. Recognize that, and recognize it is okay to cry and talk about it, even if you think, “gosh, I feel shallow weeping about not going to the NCAA finals when people are dying.” It’s okay.

Often the hardest part about ambiguous losses is the “compare factor.” As if somehow you shouldn’t feel sad because well, it could have been worse, or geez, other people have kids with cancer and have relatives dying, and you missing your kid’s graduation is well small potatoes honey. The notion that because “these are first world problems” we shouldn’t be entitled to feel sad about them and grieve them makes the loss complex.

We aren’t given permission to cry over them, and at times, are made to feel stupid for even saying it out loud. We even admonish ourselves, (I know I have,) telling ourselves that these things are silly to cry over.

Instead, we are quietly crying in the shower over canceling that Disney graduation from college trip cause it seems silly and shallow and first world of us. I will say it. I am sad about not seeing my son walk across the stage, I feel robbed. I am sad about my daughter losing a job she worked her fanny off to get and was thriving at. I am sad that I may not get to retire as soon as I want. And I cry about this nightly. It’s not fair.

Right now, the world is telling us, well, the bigger picture is the health of the nation and it is.  But trust me, in the long run, so are these losses, and so is the need for us to be talking about them and about our sadness. This blunting and ignoring of our grief is happening all over social media in the crisis. While keeping perspective is helpful, so is saying, “I know this is hard for you. I am sad. I looked so forward to this and am just beside myself.”

In all the memes and jokes on social media, in all the “take a walk” and “distance” and “flatten the curve” posts I have seen, I have yet to see one that has said, “Hey! You out there, missing your senior year of basketball, hey, you out there, missing seeing your kid walk across the stage, you out there, having a meltdown about making rent and facing eviction, you out there, getting yelled at by your boss for not coming to work cause your kids are out of school, you out there, hey you out there with asthma and over sixty and feeling like a target is on your back, you out there, lonely now because your only socialization was church or sports, you out there, who had to cancel a trip longed dreamed and planned for, you out there, set to retire next year and cant, you out there, feeling sad and scared and robbed and cheated out of something and in grief. Hey you, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel sad and disappointed and grief.”

So I will say it, and we all need to say it.

Hey! You out there. It is okay to cry over what others may call first world problems. It is okay to grieve these things and talk about them. You out there, these are not small potatoes at all.

I am here to say go ahead and cry and talk about it. The loss and grief are real, and it is a really sad time. Let’s catch each other’s tears in this.

And hey, you out there, remember this. BOTH things can be true!

You can be deeply sad and grieving, and simultaneously understand the need for the greater common good.

So weep, kvetch, scream and complain.

But keep silver linings in mind too. Life-changing losses and events like these almost ALWAYS hatch good things later. Forest fires always encourage young things to grow. Not “having” makes you realize the joy and privilege of “having.”  It makes it sweeter.

And as my wise kiddo noted, empathy emerges when we find ourselves in a place we have never been and walking in shoes we have never worn. Laser clarity comes with loss and illuminates what is important and not. It can be a reset. Especially methinks, when the loss is of the first-world variety.

In a pandemic, no one is immune from the loss of things we were excited for and looked forward to. No one is immune to the gutted feeling that the loss of safety and security stirs up.

So grieve. Cry. Comfort one another. Discuss the sadness and anger of these first-world losses as we quarantine.  Recognize the complex intertwining of fear and anger and loss in all this. Cry and do all the things people who lose people to death do, support, listen and drop a note. Teach our young adults it’s okay to cry and go, “Yes. This absolutely sucks and is not fair.”

Say for all to hear, “I feel uncomfortable saying this given all that is at stake with this virus, but I am sad about not going to my kid’s graduation, wedding, whatever it is.”

And listen for how many echoes your very permission-giving proclamation brings, echoes over and over, of “Me too, me too.”


My neighbor Frances is 89 years young. I would estimate she is just as much, if not more of a southern spitfire as she was back in 1924 on the day she was born in farmhouse down east (as we say here in NC) in Elm City. Frances has seen me through many a life trial always without fail, inviting me into her grandma like home when I ring her buzzer. Read the rest of this entry »

Years ago, then President Kennedy made a speech about the space program and our need to keep advancing it. He referred to the story of some little boys running through the green, green fields of Ireland and coming upon an orchard wall that seemed perhaps too high to climb. Instead of turning back the boys took their hats and threw them over the wall, and thus, then had to climb the wall to go get their hats; the toss leaving them with no choice but to go over the wall to retrieve their caps.

I have always been a throw my hat over the wall kind of girl. Sometimes it’s because I am just dying to know what’s on the other side, sometimes it’s just for the thrill of the climb. Being an eternal sunshiny optimist, I think it’s mostly because I believe that what is on the other side of the wall is not better than what I have, but something new and different and grand to experience. Mostly though, just like those little Irish boys the toss is made to force me to do something I thought I couldn’t do, to make something happen, to experience something that would not have had I not done so. Truth be told, I get a wee bit agitated when there are no walls to climb, my fingers itch and fidget with a cap in hand, and I start to actively search out walls when that happens. 

When we are making our way through our life and come across the cancer wall, I think that most of the time our oncologists and surgeons rip the cap out of our hand and toss it over the wall for us. They lay out their neat tactical plans of how we will scale the wall and give us visions of how 85 or 95 percent of the people have made it over, and how they are living life on the other side of the wall. We want to visit this magical and unbelievable land on the other side and really don’t have much choice but to go after our cap to cover our bald heads; then too, to go after it is infinitely better than staying on this side of the orchard wall, where things appear to be dying.

But after cancer, as we continue onward through the vast field that is our life, what do we do when we come upon a wall? Do we bemoan the fact that it is unfair, because we already had to climb the big wall o’ cancer? Do we even have the strength or gumption to climb anymore? I mean honestly what’s the use if we are gonna die while trying? Do we avoid walls altogether? Do we see it as a positive or negative? An adventure or labor? 

Cancer makes us hesitate. It makes us want to hold on to what we have and clutch tightly to our caps because well, we might need it to cover our bald noggin again sometime soon. Cancer makes us afraid to plan and take on new things. Throwing our hat over a wall feels like buying green bananas. Cancer eats zest. Cancer makes us afraid. Cancer makes us tentative and bit distrusting of planning for the future. Cancer makes us think the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. In the months just after treatment is completed it is hard to believe there are better days ahead, it feels counterintuitive to trust that the ice is thick enough to skate out on and into our future.  

After five years, I prefer to look back at that time of caution and fear as a time when I was just resting and gathering my strength. I remember it now, with my sunshine spin, as a place where yes I may have taken the cap off and considered the toss but in the end held kept it in my hands as I sunk down with my back against that wall to as they say in the south, sit a spell.

But I can tell from my perch high atop of yet another wall, five years and a million walls out from cancer that once you catch your breath and no longer need that cap to cover your head, cancer becomes a catapult sailing you high over the wall and into life after. Cancer catapults both our caps, and us. Cancer makes us want to experience everything that is behind wall number one and two and three and four. Cancer in the end, makes us adept and easy hat tossers, and skilled climbers with a penchant for finding even higher walls. Cancer makes us grateful for the toil of the climb.

To move from a place of fear, from a place of clutching our caps to our chest to a place where we are making the toss we have to believe that the days ahead are better than the days behind us. We must believe we are capable of making the climb and will live to see the other side in order for us to throw. We must be willing to give up the status quo and the safety of what we know, for perhaps the devil we don’t (which may in fact, be a devil of a good time.) We must toss our hats over with glee and sense that an adventure beholds us, not a tragedy. We must be excited about the climb. But mostly we must actively find our own walls by beginning to move through life again. That is what life is all about Charlie Brown; making the run to kick over and over, even though the ball may get pulled out at the last minute.

A tad impulsive I am yes, and admittedly I have been known many a time to toss before I totally think it through. Sometimes I have created my own walls just so I can toss. But I have found that ninety-nine percent of the time the climb is worth it and that the sweat and toil of working toward a goal remind me I am alive. If I thought about it too long, I might not make the toss; cancer has given me the luxury of not having a lot of time to think about it.

Life is in the preparing to climb. Life is in the climb. Life feels like drawing the deepest of breaths when you are on top of the wall. Almost always, I find not greener pastures but my hat, and lots more life experiences to fill it with.

There are a million things that cancer took from me but two million more I have because cancer, many found on the other sides of walls I would have never thrown my hat over had it not been for cancer, and many found while making the climb.

And heck, I’d rather die while climbing a wall than die while standing at the bottom, anxiously peering at it, clutching my hat, trying to screw up the courage to make the toss. As Mr. Buffet says, “I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”

I didn’t survive cancer to just stand there. Neither did you.

Walls don’t come to us, we must go to them. As they say, ships in the harbour are safe, but that is not what ships are made for.

The prospect of a short life has made me to run gleefully to them, and throw my hat over the wall again, building my wings on the way down the other side.

Just not angel wings…not yet at least.

“One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on”

~The Polar Express

I’ve recently taken on this less than sparkly little habit of calling 2011 my Lost Year. Read the rest of this entry »

Last weekend, with the approach of Irene we once again went through the oh-so-familiar drill of preparations for the coming storm. Hurricanes seem to find our little state a magnet, and here in North Carolina we are seasoned pro’s at prepping for these events. Read the rest of this entry »

I was chatting with a friend the other day about our respective surprise! divorces. He is about 5 years behind me in the recovery process and admittedly, still struggles with all of the anger and turmoil and the in-your-faceness that is the devastation of a spouse walking out on you. Read the rest of this entry »

I have this big huge fantabulous Thanksgiving party every year; it’s always on the weekend before thanksgiving. We call it our Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Party.  Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: