For many of us, 2020 will be a year to remember, whether we’ve invited this time into our lives or not. Collectively, the world has been thrust into a unified experience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The way we see ourselves, our environments and our relationships has been changed. Our altered state leaves many of us feeling isolated, scared and questioning our heightened emotions. For myself, I’ve spent many moments considering my distorted thoughts in my journey from the couch to the fridge and back. I may not have run a 5K recently, but my trips to the kitchen for self-soothing cookies when viewing the news or social media probably counts for just as many steps. If you’re feeling a sense of loss or grief right now, you’re far from alone. In the 1970’s, Pauline Boss founded a theory on our grief during times like this and others called ambiguous loss.
Should I be upset about this?
That question has been coming up for many, in our thoughts and reasons as we try to consider our losses when comparing them to others’, thoughts like, “I’m upset I didn’t get to enjoy our scheduled family reunion or vacation, but should I be? Others have it worse right now.” The answer is, yes. Although, there is a hierarchy of basic needs for all humans, your sense of loss without closure is valid. This is where the concept of ambiguous loss comes into effect. In her book, “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief,” Boss defines ambiguous loss as “a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.”
Simply said, you have been thrown into an emotional roller coaster as a result of a world-wide pandemic, without choice and with restrictions on your life. Your grief about losses, both experiential and tangible, is going to take time to reconcile. You’re allowed to be confused, upset and angry without reason.
Yes, feeling upset about that cancelled vacation, graduation, appointment, date, experience or structured days is natural, and welcome. Understanding and sitting with this discomfort is healthy, although hard.
What are the effects?
The emotional roller coaster is tedious and exhausting. We don’t know who and what to believe and find our emotional jar is overflowing. This results in:
- Alternative thoughts or changes in our identity or sense of self.
- Changes in relationships to family, friends and work.
- Increased risk of negative self-talk, anxiety and depression.
- Breaks in spiritual connection.
- Increased risks of isolation behaviors as a result of mandated home quarantine.
It is important to note, that the resulting effects are difficult to maneuver and engaging in creating or increasing your self-care routine is important right now.
Well, then I throw my hands up! How can I cope?
By week two or three, many of us have already increased self-care, had at least 20 Zoom calls, tried the Instagram dance parties, worked out in the living room, much to the annoyance of our pets, painted, drawn, sewn or created things, and pretty much exhausted our “wish I had time to” lists. Frustration is here, and I can relate. There’s only so many five-minute pop-music dance parties I can do before having to sit down and face the emotions. Here are some suggestions to consider when you’ve reached that point:
- Consider what is really bothering you and try to identify the loss. Giving it a name or label helps you start to understand it.
- Identify the loss in one sentence, simplifying it down helps to address it directly.
- Find supports or education on the loss you’re dealing with.
- Consider the alternatives to the loss.
- Practice self-acceptance, empathy and sitting with the identified emotion.
- Create a safe space physically and emotionally, a holding space for you to problem solve or reconcile the emotions in your own time.
- Share in the emotions with identified loved ones.
- Support others’ views on their grief and pain; not placing hierarchy on anyone’s grief.
I’m still upset, pandemics are scary, and I’m overwhelmed.
Me too. One thing that has helped many of my clients is learning to sit with this discomfort, dismantling unrealistic expectations and above all, learning to ride this roller coaster. Take that ticket and ask to sit in the first car of the roller coaster, the fear zone (I’m a sucker for a bad metaphor or pun, as you can tell). Learning to adjust or reconcile the waves of emotion may be a small benefit in this uncertain time. Identifying our ambiguous loss, adapting to change, sitting with the ambiguity and finding meaning in the experience is all we have control over.
Humans thrive on connection and social interactions. That we know. This will be hard, but all roller coasters don’t come with unlimited rides. There will be an end to this ride, and when it does arrive, I hope you may find small comfort in knowing that you rode in the fear zone and learned a little bit about yourself in the process. I also hope you allow yourself to grieve these losses; they are yours and they are valid. Let’s ride together.