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Loss, Ambiguous Loss, Love and Joy… All At The Same Time

Updated: May 4, 2020

As I sit here, in my pajamas, outside of my daughter’s room, clandestinely listening to her perform in a show via Zoom that was supposed to be mounted in the theater this weekend, I’m thinking a lot about the ambiguous grief that this COVID-19 pandemic has wrought.  We have lost so much that is tangible and intangible.  So many lives have been lost and the financial strain so many are feeling is real and the weight of it all sits heavy on my heart.  This is tangible grief.

But I also started thinking about the mundane things that we have lost that feel less tangible, and even make me wonder, does this really count as a loss?  Three months ago, I admittedly had a tendency to lean towards annoyance when I realized I had to get in the car One. More. Time. to drive to yet another rehearsal or meeting or gymnastics practice.  Or how my back would be so tired and sore after 5 hours working backstage in the theater with a bunch of smelly kids.  But now, I would give my left arm to be in the wings, watching my daughter on the stage, shining her light on the world.  Yes, I get to listen to her sing every day in the comfort of my home, (and through her bedroom door right now –shhhhh she doesn’t know I’m here!) and for that I am grateful. But something happens to her when she is under the lights, with her theater friends, hugging them, laughing and saying in nervous hushed tones “5 minutes ‘til curtain!”  I get JOY from seeing and hearing that.  I’m grieving the excitement of the curtain going up and the tears of pride and joy and overwhelming emotion that I always shed at the curtain call.  (Every. Single. Time.)  I’m grieving the waiting (Oh! The waiting!) for her to come out of her dressing room because she has to say goodbye to just one more friend.  I’m really, really grieving the hugging.

There are so many, many losses I’ve felt during the past two months.  So much of it is impossible to put into words, and in some way that makes it harder.  If you can’t explain it, is it real?

On the flip side, what brings me comfort is that even if I can’t articulate it perfectly, I know my grief makes sense.  Pauline Boss (1999) coined the term ambiguous loss to try and define and understand the complicated confusion that happens to a person when there is no ritual or tangible thing to grieve.  The show must go on.  Maybe you think you aren’t even allowed to grieve because nobody you know actually died and you should just feel grateful.

And then guilt rears its head.   You ask yourself, is it OK to feel the hope?  Is it OK to laugh so hard you almost pee in your pants? During this pandemic, I have had many occasions during which I’ve felt gratitude, and dare I say it, JOY.  But with those emotions also comes the thought, “Am I allowed to feel this if so many are suffering right now?”   The short answer is, YES.  It is possible for us to be able to feel more than one thing at the same time.  In fact, it’s necessary. Stroebe and Schut (2001) came up with a theory called the “Dual Process Model” to normalize and validate how important it is during the process of grief to do things that are “loss oriented” versus things that are “restoration oriented”.  The concept is that one needs to oscillate between focusing on the loss and distraction from the loss.  It’s too difficult for a person’s system to stay in it all the time.  It would be overwhelming and you might not ever get out of bed.  So doing things like gardening, watching TV, and singing at the top of your lungs in the shower (ahem), are actually good for you, and help integrate the loss into your life.  LIFE.  For those of us who are still living and breathing, it is crucial that we continue to do so.  To take deep breaths of good, clean air while feeling the warm sun on our skin to remind us that we are alive.  And, it is crucial to face our grief head on – to go to the depths of the sadness and let it wash over us, to feel the pain of the unknown, knowing that joy and celebration of the life we are living also hold us steady and prevent us from becoming untethered.

So go ahead and feel it all: ambiguity, sadness, love, and joy – and everything in between. This is the beauty of being human.

Written by Rebecca Geshuri, LMFT

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