Over the last few weeks, like many of you, I’ve been watching press conferences and reading articles about the-virus-that-shall-not-be-named. I’ve been consuming copious amounts of information about the severity of the current situation and what it means for the foreseeable future.
I feel paralyzed by questions like, “Will things ever go back to normal? What have we lost? What will be lost in the days and weeks to come?”. And, yet, in many ways, my mind won’t let me accept some of the harsher realities. Even now, I go to bed every night with the feeble hope that the morning headline will read, “Things Not As Bad as They Seemed!”
After years supporting people at the time of a loved one’s sudden and unexpected death, I’ve learned that our protective cognitive barriers are far more permeable than our psychological ones. Our brains may grasp truths that our psyches are slower to integrate.
My psyche is starting to catch up.
Relatively speaking, my family has been fortunate so far—which is to say, everyone is currently healthy. Most of our losses take the shape of minor sacrifices, financial hardship, and the despair of knowing the world’s turned on its head, people are dying, and much more loss is still to come. But everyone is going through this so, like many, I’ve questioned whether our losses even count.
I want to take a second to tell you about something called ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss happens when you’re not entirely sure who or what you’ve lost. It’s different than the grief you experience when someone you love dies; that kind of loss is finite and certain, and there’s no question you should feel pain.
Ambiguous grief happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away like a Polaroid developing in reverse.
Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?
Learning about ambiguous loss has taught me something that I find so helpful. It is that two seemingly opposite things can be true at once. An example that’s commonly seen with ambiguous grief is when someone grieves a change in a person, relationship, or circumstance while also hoping that the relationship or circumstance will get better or be repaired.
Who Gets to Grieve?
I think something many people are struggling with right now is a profound sense of sadness and loss, but also the feeling that it’s selfish to grieve. Either because their sacrifices serve a higher purpose or because they know others are suffering much worse. But why can’t these things be true at the same time as your grief and loss?
Life is seldom as either/or as we think it is; one reality does not take away from or erase the other. You can feel pain, hope, and gratitude all at the same time. Losses can serve a higher purpose and be sad all at the same time. And your grief over a minor loss does not take away from your compassion towards those experiencing more devastating losses.
It’s not wallowing or self-centered to grieve the loss of things like weddings, proms, graduations, sports seasons, parties, religious observance, funerals, togetherness, support, and connection. These things are an extension of individual values like family, friends, intimacy, parenting, spirituality, career, and community. So they are connected to your higher purpose.
Considering the circumstances, you might even see your grief as having a higher purpose. Right now, people are going through horrible, traumatic, earth-shattering things. And when this is all over, they’re going to need to find support in a grieving world. So now, more than ever, we have to maximize our capacity for compassion—and this doesn’t mean denying ourselves of it.
As prominent self-compassion researcher and author Kristin Neff has written:
“If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.”
If you show compassion towards your struggles, you may be more likely to show compassion towards others. So rather than minimizing pain and anxiety because “Hey, we’re all suffering here. It could be worse”, you might be more inclined to stop and think “I recognize this pain and bet this person could use some kindness and support.”
Things are beyond upsetting.
Let’s face the pain.
Let’s hold each other up.
Let’s grow stronger together.
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