I don’t want to make a big deal out of this but…

I have heard these words repeatedly from stress resilience and spiritual counseling clients over the past few months in reference to a sense of pervasive loss felt due to changes in daily routine and the demise of normal life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. None of my clients has been ill with COVID-19. None have lost a loved one to the pandemic, and few know someone who has been seriously ill; like many of us, my clients have been left wondering if the loss they feel is real or valid or worth mentioning. 

The answer is, yes, such losses are worth mentioning. And yes these losses are real and have a name: ambiguous. 

Ambiguous loss is a loss that can lead grievers to question if a real loss has even occurred. Ambiguous losses are complicated, involving unforeseen – even unimaginable – circumstances that create a lingering sense of uncertainty and overwhelm about not only what is being felt but also what has been lost. Not being able to go to the health club – is that a real loss? What about feeling isolated whereas before you felt a sense of belonging, safety and security?  Desired foods and products no longer available at the grocery store? Seeing daily counts of the sick and dead on television?

Uncertainty may be the biggest psychological challenge we face collectively and as individuals now in the unfolding aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. When what is lost is ambiguous, both being present to the now and moving forward with life can be difficult to navigate. Living daily with uncertainty stemming from a threat to our own health and the health of our loved ones, the impact on our personal finances and the economy at large, the short-term and long-term impact on daily life, and more, can lead to stress overwhelm and being unable to cope. 

The key to coping with the stress of ambiguous loss is to build resiliency. Resilience can be defined as the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge and adversity. The defining characteristic of resilience is flexibility. Flexibility begins with being present to what is, meaning not acting as if nothing has changed due to COVID-19 but also not acting as if nothing can ever return to a more normal state.

Dr. Pauline Boss of the University of Minnesota developed the theory of ambiguous loss. Dr. Boss put together guidelines for dealing with ambiguous loss; here are some versions of those guidelines adapted for the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Acknowledge your current new normal. Sometimes we feel if we acknowledge what the current new normal is that there will never be another new normal that resembles the life we want. In actuality, acknowledging what now is can help you see that this too shall pass, replaced by another new normal or even a series of new normals that will eventually lead back to a return to routine and a renewed sense of belonging. 
  2. Acknowledge what you feel. Feeling distressed due to uncertainty is normal. Feeling sad or angry or worried are also normal responses to uncertainty. Ambiguity is the problem, not your emotions. Whatever you feel is neither good or bad, right or wrong, but rather what is and informative. Acknowledging and naming what is felt can be a first step in building resilience to your losses.
  3. Share what you think and feel. Sharing the truth of your experience with others can offer a felt sense that you are not alone in the challenges presented by the uncertainty you are living with. 
  4. Share your stories. Although COVID-19 has affected daily life on an unprecedented scale, this is not the first time you have lived with uncertainty. In the past, when confronted with the challenges of ambiguity, how did you make it through? What did you learn through what you experienced?  Making-it-through stories are resilience stories that can provide hope, highlighting a way to deal with your present situation, as well as a way to frame your experience in meaning.  
  5. Engage in both-and thinking. Seeing life and a particular situation in terms of either-or is a sign of stress. Stress narrows our view of life, taking the large horizon before us and shrinking it down to the size of a postage stamp. Either-or thinking can lock you into definitive views regarding your COVID-19 experience, such as “either everything returns to the way it was before, or I can never be happy again;" aimed at trying to make sense of uncertainty, either-or thinking can instead increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness about your ability to cope.

    Engaging in both-and thinking can provide a more positive way to live with ambiguity by helping you to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, effectively helping your balloon of worry to deflate. Some example of both-and thinking: “COVID-19 will last forever, and maybe COVID-19 is temporary;" and “the economy will never recover, and maybe the economy will recover soon."   
  6. Construct new routines and rituals. Feeling adrift on the sea of life is a common response to ambiguous loss. The structure of routine can help create a sense of certainty in uncertain times. Consciously constructing new routines and rituals rather than foregoing them can anchor you in the present by creating a sense of normal within a new context. For example, develop schedules for meals, home-schooling and working from home, including break times, as well as schedules and assignments for chores and leisure activities. 

    Rituals provide fun, excitement and meaning in our lives. Although the usual or normal way you observe birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other important life events might not be possible at this time, marking such occasions in a new and imaginative way can foster the same sense of family-closeness, community, and specialness experienced through past special occasion celebrations and events.
  7. Look for and find meaning and purpose.  Finding meaning in challenge and adversity can help you persevere.  Finding meaning can also help you make sense of something you will never have all the answers for regarding the hows and whys of what has happened. Taking positive action gives purposeful direction to meaning. During the COVID-19 crisis, thousands of people made masks for healthcare workers as a way to contribute something positive in the midst of so much suffering. Others checked in on elderly neighbors and brought them groceries. Some business owners chose to close their business to avoid spreading the virus, while others chose to stay open to ensure their employees livelihood (while at the same time putting protective measure in place to keep them safe). These are all examples of purposeful actions that provided meaning in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. 

As we phase back into a new normal, continuing to find meaning and purpose can aid us in creating a sense of certainty in still uncertain times.