Ambiguous Loss

June 17th, 2021

Change can be difficult, especially when you are dealing with it on your own. For the past year and a half, our lives have changed drastically with the sudden outbreak of COVID-19. The virus has affected several aspects of our lives: childcare, education, employment, healthcare, and relationships. With these changes, we have been forced to find a “new normal” and establish a balance. During these times, we have lost more than our sense of autonomy – we have lost our friends, family, celebrations as well as other important events and life markers. This is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced before and comes with many unanswered questions. 

A constant feeling of sorrow, frustration, loneliness, stress, and helplessness is unfortunately common right now. The feeling of uncertainty when experiencing a loss is a common one and has been well documented by Dr. Pauline Boss, a psychologist known for her studies on families of military pilots who went missing in action. Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s after observing the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of these tragedies on the bereaved. The term describes the feelings of loss when closure cannot occur or when there is no clear understanding.

At face value, ambiguous loss may seem very similar to grief. However, there are distinct differences between the two: the type of loss that is experienced as well as the ability to find closure afterwards. Grief is a natural process, and everyone experiences it differently whether it be through fear, frustration, anger, or sorrow. A successful grieving process ends in the individual’s ability to acknowledge and accept the loss that has occurred. It is important to note that many who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 are experiencing grief. On the other hand, ambiguous loss impedes the linear stages of grief, making closure very challenging.

These days, while there are signs of hope, many of us may still be mourning our sense of normalcy, safety, and security. Grieving in isolation, dealing with altered routines, and not being able to participate in traditions, it is safe to say that we are all yearning for the end of COVID-19 and associated restrictions.

Here are a few strategies to help cope with ambiguous loss:

  1. Recognize feelings – labelling feelings or symptoms can offer some comfort to the bereaved, knowing that someone has experienced similar trauma or events can be reassuring and provide hope for one’s recovery.
  2. Develop and connect with support systems – whether it be family, friends, or even a support group building meaningful and trustworthy relationships can be beneficial to an individual’s recovery. Having supportive people to speak with can have huge impacts on one’s development and can act as a way to come to terms with the situation at hand.
  3. Meditate – meditation can be comforting to the bereaved by helping them accept their new reality and move on.
  4. Consider therapy – learn how to identify, talk, and work with your ambiguous loss by building better coping mechanisms, overcoming trauma and building resilience. 

Written by Brittny Hurst, Guest Blogger

References

Choudhary, V. (2020, April 30). The loss of normalcy: Coping with grief and uncertainty during COVID-19. Retrieved from https://magellanhealthinsights.com/2020/04/30/the-loss-of-normalcy-coping-with-grief-and-uncertainty-during-covid-19/

Mendoza, M. A., Ph.D. (2017, September 5). Ambiguous loss. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/understanding-grief/201709/ambiguous-loss

Tyson, B. (2020, May 29). Are you living in grief limbo? How to cope with ambiguous loss. Retrieved from https://www.psychreg.org/ambiguous-loss/

Woods, S. B., Ph.D. (2020, May 8). COVID-19 and ambiguous loss. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/in-sickness-and-in-health/202005/covid-19-and-ambiguous-loss

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