What does ambiguous loss mean in a global pandemic?
July 19, 2020 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Krista Tippett, host of On Being, talks with Pauline Boss, who coined the phrase "ambiguous loss," about loss and grief in the time of pandemic. "And I feel like it’s really settling in now, the losses. And they’re large and small, as you say. People have lost loved ones. But there’s also this loss of going to the office; of certainty, like that your kids will go to school....there are all these losses, large and small, all at once. And we’re carrying them individually, but we’re also carrying them at the same time."

Boss and Tippett on ambiguous loss, previously.
posted by MonkeyToes (28 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
This feels like an artificial framing that falls into the category of "if all you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail". It's not all loss, but it is rapid, or a lot of, change. If you see every change as a loss, you're going to be very unhappy. But being unhappy about a change doesn't make it a loss. Perhaps this is were the ambiguity comes from.

My wife lost her mother. That's a loss, but hardly an ambiguous one. She also no longer has a job, but arguably that's a positive step forward, given what her job was like. She is struggling with feeling a sense of achievement, but coupling one's sense of self worth with one's employment is not healthy, so while she may have temporarily, technically "lost" a way of feeling like she was achieving something, it was just as false of a sense of achievement as when I was grinding out quests in World of Warcraft. She is looking at life in an increasingly healthy way, which is why I see a lot of change, but worry about anyone trying deliberately to frame more of it as loss than need be.

I "lost" my office, in so far as I work from home now. (hint: this is not a loss.) I "lost" my 10 lots of 35 minutes of commute each week. (hint: this is also not a loss.) I don't actually feel like I lost anything, especially since my work load appears to have gone up and I've gained more time with my wife. (not quality time, but still.)

The company that provided off-site backups for one of our customers by physically attending the office and swapping hard drives around did lose that job, and we "lost" 5-7TB of space on one of our storage tiers picking up those off-site backups over an encrypted link. This is business.

There is loss and disruption, but there is also opportunity and growth. It's only ambiguous until you know where a change falls.
posted by krisjohn at 3:12 PM on July 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Oh, I disagree: I lost my commute time, which was for audiobooks. That's six hours of NOT reading per week.

My kids lost out on a ton of specific opportunities. They didn't change into anything, they're just gone.

My wife lost out on all of her time alone. She is feeling great.

I lost out on my ability to take a solo walk for exercise at lunch. If I go now I have to take the dog, and his feet are sore so he is slooooooow.

My mother in law doesn't share meals or special occasions with us. I haven't seen my family across the country since last year, and we didn't visit.

Calling that a "change" seems to belittle things that are very sad for a lot of people.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:38 PM on July 19, 2020 [88 favorites]

I'm losing friends who for whatever reason aren't very or at all communicative online. I don't like that I am losing those people because in person was how they operated and related to the world, but what can I do? I can't make people text me back or just meet at the bar, ever again. Will we ever be able to connect again if/when this ever ends? Or will we be so distant from each other that it's unrecoverable?

I don't like that I just live in fear about leaving my home or having even slight contact with humans. And that I am pissing people off by refusing to see people even socially distantly with masks on because my paranoia levels are so high and it doesn't feel like anything is "safer" enough other than No Contact and I'm not willing to take any risks. This comic sums it up for me. Will I be too scarred and traumatized for the rest of my life to ever leave the house again even if things improve? I can't even enjoy being alone outside because all I can think of when I leave my house is THE VIRUS and how I have to have my paranoia levels up on HIGH ALERT so I don't rub my eyes or something stupid.

I think we all lost the future. I can't have any dreams or goals of finding another job or relationship under the circumstances, so that's dead and gone. Given how awful things are going, this may be the rest of our lives, such as they are, because people would rather die (and kill you) than try not to share their bodies and germs. I'd like to think this is only a few years, but who the hell knows? This is really what the "ambiguous" means. We don't know if there is any hope that things won't be godawful in several years from now or if this is permanent and forever.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:08 PM on July 19, 2020 [59 favorites]

I don't think you can lose the future, but definitely opportunities, pleasures, connections, the ability to hope and plan are lost, at least for a while.

Limbo is a hard place to live and we are all stuck here like a nightmare where you can't move and you're in a scary place.

Chaos can bring opportunity, sure. But it's the worst way, because there's so much waste and suffering along with it. Which is why that New Yorker piece on "the Black Death was good in the long run actually," is so infuriating. Just because people can make the best of something awful doesn't erase that suffering.
posted by emjaybee at 4:35 PM on July 19, 2020 [20 favorites]

The biggest loss I mourn is the apparent loss of sanity throughout about half the population.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:59 PM on July 19, 2020 [31 favorites]

I was talking to a friend on the phone, who is out in his element, at his place in the trees. He said that in the begining he thought the virus was a hoax, then he went all in, paranoiac, then he said he decided to educate himself, and he read up on how the 1918 Spanish flu resolved. He said it took about three years for the whole thing to come to a stop, he is seeing it might take that in this time. I realize at my age, three more years of functional isolation is a difficult mountain to see over, and it means so many things. I have not lost anyone to this disease, but I have lost everyone, in the sense I moved away from those I knew, and live near family, but we keep mostly separate, as at least one of them works, outside the home. Interestingly my neighborhood is getting into a vegetable swap, as some of us have gardens, and extras of some things. It is like that famous Michaelangelo God Creating Adam, we stay six feet apart and hand over bags. I live in a duplex, so we are extended family as far as masking goes, we are isolated in place here, except to shop, or in their case, go camping for three weeks, in a closed campground. So for me, there is stasis, but no beginnings, cats, cats, and more cats. I have many "wait" moments, when I realize I won't be doing that, or that, or that. It is like life with the exception of my immediate surroundings, became a unsatisfying digital film. However my old, online, friends are still there as always, with less social reporting. The loss though is for the civility, and the loss of countless human lives, and the loss of the specific lives, targeted by racism, bigotry, and in inflamed sense of toxic, (what we have in the past considered,) masculine acts and brutality. There is a loss of the feeling of comfort in the day to day, and then I realize that is just an illusion I keep, to keep sane. So, yes, I am moving beyond loss, and into the big empty. It is hard to sustain this little bubble, solo, but I do, because others count on me, to call them and affirm I care for them and take an interest in their lives. They don't even have to be far away, to be far away, any more.
posted by Oyéah at 5:03 PM on July 19, 2020 [14 favorites]

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

posted by vitout at 6:01 PM on July 19, 2020 [65 favorites]

"Where but in the very asshole of comedown is redemption: as where but brought low, where but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we discern the savage afflictions that turn us around: where but in the arrangements love crawls us through"

-AR Ammons.
posted by clavdivs at 6:57 PM on July 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So strange: I just started re-watching the LOTR trilogy and had to pause right after this scene to reflect on all that's been already lost and changed in the last five months of my life.

God I hope it all turns out at least as well as it does in the end. though Frodo paid an enormous price.

Or maybe this time someone thinks to ask the eagles for help?
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 7:03 PM on July 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

I mean, I was going to say something clever here, but honestly: Fuck Covid. Fuck the US response to Covid. Fuck the myriad institutional and philosophical factors that make the US response so much more terrible. All of this sucks. Everything related is manifestly worse and worse still. Fuck all of it. Thank god for whiskey.


(Seriously, though, i hope i still have a frozen pizza left for tonight.)
posted by thivaia at 7:13 PM on July 19, 2020 [21 favorites]

I lost my commute time, which was for audiobooks. That's six hours of NOT reading per week.

So. Much. This.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:31 PM on July 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

Different countries or regions and different people within each region are experiencing the pandemic differently. Perhaps we could try to avoid totalizing statements that give the impression that non-US resident Mefites, or Mefites who have had some positive changes mixed in with the losses, don't exist or matter; but also recognize that grief can be a bit inwardly focused, and let this thread have space to grieve for those who have had both more traditional losses and who have experienced their changes as losses? This is one of those cases where the emotional weight is very unequal between differing possible viewpoints in a discussion of the fpp link, and compassion dictates that those with less emotional investment take more care in how we engage with the topic (eg. around jokes, affiliated political commentary, critiques of the article posted).
posted by eviemath at 8:15 PM on July 19, 2020 [17 favorites]

I just lost two close friends, not to covid, but lost. Makes we want to contact old friends, tell them I love them, and remind them not to get killed in a freak car accident.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:26 PM on July 19, 2020 [8 favorites]

Or maybe this time someone thinks to ask the eagles for help?


*Look, I was never that into LOTR, I don't remember what was what with the eagles, and I'm not sure what any would do other than hopefully shit on the heads of our enemies, but at this point I'll fucking try anything.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:04 PM on July 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

So, maybe everyone’s done this, and I’m just babbling, but “ambiguous loss” is a technical term with a specific meeting. From Dr. Boss’s website
Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be.
The term is usually used into contexts: First, when a loss cannot be cleanly resolved because of lack of physical evidence, as when someone has disappeared, perhaps during a natural disaster, leaving no body. Second, when a loss cannot be cleanly resolved because it is ongoing, like a loved one experiencing dementia. Needless to say, these are simplifications.

I think COVID fits the second pretty clearly, because unlike, say, a natural disaster, it is ongoing and extremely uncertain, So our normal coping mechanisms don’t work very well. We can’t just get to work repairing damage, because the damage is ongoing. We can’t plan for the future, because too much is unknown. And so on. So we have to find different ways to grieve for what we are losing/have lost.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:39 AM on July 20, 2020 [45 favorites]

So, yes. I am feeling a lot of ambiguous loss right now. I 'm not a hugely social person -- I have a small close group of friends and a wider circle of "friendly acquaintances," who I have predictable, somewhat ritual interactions with. For example, on my commute, which is too long, I had friendly, brief, and very predictable interactions with fellow commuters and staff at the coffee shop I grabbed breakfast at. It's nice to have more time in my day, although my audiobook listening has declined, but I've only seen one of the commuters once in 4 months, and I don't know if the coffee shop even exists anymore. I could call, but that seems weird.... That's a minor grief, but I can't really resolve it until I start commuting again, which is planned for about 6 weeks away, but who knows? And that's just one easy thing, I have other, worse griefs, and I am sure there are people with worse griefs than my current worst. And most of them are just hanging, awaiting resolution which could be years in coming....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:14 AM on July 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I had listened to the show while driving and then tried to remember the exact phrase later; could only remember the words "ambiguous" and "epigenetics". Pop that in your Google search and you'll see that many people find epigenetics to be ambiguous. Inherited trauma is an interesting concept, and while I'm not in any way shape or form a scientist/psychologist I find the concept fascinating.
posted by lotusstp at 10:50 AM on July 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Ambiguous loss sounds about right. I'm so sorry for those of you dealing with this in places like the US. This will end, and it's not right that you're being made to suffer more than can be helped by the selfishness of other people.
posted by Braeburn at 11:30 AM on July 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm losing friends who for whatever reason aren't very or at all communicative online. I don't like that I am losing those people because in person was how they operated and related to the world, but what can I do? I can't make people text me back or just meet at the bar, ever again. Will we ever be able to connect again if/when this ever ends? Or will we be so distant from each other that it's unrecoverable?

This comment, and the fact that Linda Holmes tweeted something on the subject just a few moments ago, have been the first two signs that I'm not alone in this particular subset of quarantine grief/worry. Even while I'm feeling grateful for friendships that seem to be as strong or stronger than I thought, I have confusion about some others and in particular about how to clear up said confusion, and then on top of that, a certain amount of shame about not knowing how to navigate this at my grown age. Anyway for whatever it's worth, jenfullmoon, your comment made at least one person feel a little less alone.
posted by lampoil at 12:33 PM on July 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

Looking back on my comment up there, I realize that I got interrupted while typing my it (on my phone, in the dark), so it's a bit garbled: for example, my wife isn't actually "great" without any alone time now that there are six of us living together again!

And my "losses" seem very small for someone who still has many blessings. But we should all still be allowed to mourn the things we have lost, even if they were only possibilities/opportunities/dreams that we hadn't even gotten a chance to test ourselves against.

I am especially thinking of my kids, who now have a life very tightly fenced in with risk and worry, where before they felt they had so many different avenues open to them (even if they would never consider most of the possibilities). Yes, I know that outs me as very privileged, but I believe it's true of almost everyone in the world now, and especially in America. And it suuuuuucks.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I swear, my Ask MeFi question history over the last year has had me thinking about ambiguous loss an awful lot.

First, thanks to GenjiandProust for linking to the formal definition of ambiguous loss above. Back in April 2019, bluedaisy introduced me to the term. I'd asked a complicated question about a complicated situation--my (ex)husband had had a bang on the head that changed his personality, and nothing in the world was making sense for me. My husband looked like himself, but I was struggling--really, truly struggling--to understand how his self could suddenly be so different. Reading about ambiguous loss led me to a support group, where I met many, many people in or who had gone through similar situations. In essence, I found a place where some of the ambiguity about my loss was lessened--people who also know this particular experience, it turns out, are people who are very good at honoring your grief.

It was a godsend. That one little phrase helped me loosen my grip on my husband, and to eventually let go entirely. It was among the most painful experiences of my life--I suspect it will continue to dominate my mental life for a long time to come, but with time and practice finding ways to take out some of the ambiguity... that internal earthquake has softened to a kettle drum, and it's easier to live life in the present with a kettle drum in the room than when you're walking through an earthquake and everything is falling off the walls (thanks, bluedaisy). In time, I hope that kettle becomes a snare, and the snare becomes a distant drum beat.

By last November, something... happened. I was out of the country for work. I wasn't keen on socializing, but friends wanted to take me out to meet some of their friends. I relented, expecting to have a drink to be polite and then leave. But I got sucked into conversation with this man. I heard myself laugh, out loud, genuinely for the first time in months. My face got tired from smiling. My face also felt hot from attraction. I was stunned, and a little embarrassed. He asked about it. I said I'd had a complicated year. He asked about it. I said... maybe that's too heavy for a dinner party, since I still hadn't mastered the art of not having my eyes well up with tears when catching someone up on the story. His face changed so suddenly, I thought for sure I'd nipped this in the bud and turned his head away. But no, he asked if I had any free time on my trip--maybe we could meet up for a coffee or a beer and carry on? And we did. We carried on. Which is how, a few days later, I came to Ask MeFi about pubs that wouldn't mind a couple of guys canoodling in a part of England I wasn't familiar with. Again, Ask MeFi delivered.

I came back to the states, thinking I'd gotten to have a nice little fling that put some color back in my cheeks and an honest smile back on my face. But, alas, something bloomed. He called. I called. We started video chatting. Despite the many time zones between us, we started finding time. One of us was always yawning, but there it was. He'd had a doozy of a year or two, too. Stories of friends and relatives. Pictures of kids and dogs and houses. Jpkes and inside jokes. Stresses and anxieties. It spilled out of us. My work schedule included another visit to his city in March 2020. He'd come over for my birthday in July. I'd be back again in August. He'd be back in September. My work started seriously considering letting me relocate to the country where he lives after me pestering them about it for a couple years. Possibility and opportunity and serendipity were the words coursing through my veins. Pale fountains fizzing forth pink gin. And then... a pandemic shaped up. My March trip got cancelled. Then his trip for my birthday got cancelled. Then my August trip. Borders closing. September trip. The long timeline was locking down in steps, each one a chop into the possibility, opportunity, serendipity. Just a hair over a year since I first came to Ask MeFi in a panic over ambiguous loss, I came back to AskMeFi about ambiguous loss.

This is absolutely on my mind. It seems like it's unavoidably on everyone's mind. Sometimes it's all I can think about, how this is simultaneously happening to all of us even as each story is so deeply personal to only each of us. I try to think of the art and literature that will bloom out of this collective experience, but that takes time to emerge. I look for it every day, so I can celebrate the little silver linings to this mess of a dark cloud. And, in the meantime, I'm leaning hard on the wisdom I got out of my first round of walking into a room of people who were struggling with the same kind of ambiguous loss that was troubling me. That wisdom says, seek out the people who know your loss, for whom it isn't ambiguous. Ask MeFi was the starting point of my effort to scan the field for Those People. I'm still looking, and I will keep looking for as long as it takes to find some shoulders to lean on who can give me that weary, knowing smile about what we're going through. And, with a deep sense of gratitude, I'm glad that this fella is chief among Those People. Even thousands of miles away, he knows as well as I do what we're experiencing. Seeing him on the little screen of my phone, there I am, again, in a place where some of the ambiguity about our loss is lessened.

I wish you all well during this. I hope you can find a place like that, and I'm happy to help as best I can.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:21 PM on July 20, 2020 [29 favorites]

I can really empathise with this. We moved to Singapore at the start of the year, and I've had a bit of an up and down time. It's really difficult for me to sort what is difficult because of the pandemic, what is difficult because of moving countries etc. Every single routine I had was upended, and this... ambiguity - which I hate - pervades everything.
posted by smoke at 8:54 PM on July 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

late afternoon dreaming hotel, I'm always down to discuss ambiguous loss. Had it first with my dad's long illness and then this. I hope you're still in contact with your fellow. I did end up texting with my wannabe one for about three hours (surprise!) yesterday....

I found that Linda Holmes thread, btw. I look forward to the article that other woman is promising.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:49 PM on July 20, 2020

Apart from any specific individual loss, there's also the loss of what it feels like to have a "normal" life. Not to say my "normal" life was anything scintillating or fantabulous, but there was a routine in it, and I miss many parts of that routine (even, sometimes, the shitty parts) and most of all the feeling that ordinary routine is now anything but: going to the supermarket, pumping gas, almost any outing to almost any public place feels like a game of Russian roulette, fraught with danger, and too complicated to be called routine anymore. Engaging in the bandwidth necessary to compute that no act is blissfully mindless anymore is enough to make anyone mourn the days when you could be anywhere but your own domicile and not feel constantly on guard and on edge.
posted by blucevalo at 6:32 AM on July 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

Yes, exactly. That's why I went agoraphobic: I can't relax and enjoy the outdoors any more with the level of paranoia and fear I have to maintain about air and touching things and six feet of distance. Fresh air and sunshine isn't worth it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:36 AM on July 22, 2020

I think COVID fits the second pretty clearly, because unlike, say, a natural disaster, it is ongoing and extremely uncertain, So our normal coping mechanisms don’t work very well. We can’t just get to work repairing damage, because the damage is ongoing. We can’t plan for the future, because too much is unknown. And so on. So we have to find different ways to grieve for what we are losing/have lost.

Yeah I have to say that while I can see how a lot of experiences of the pandemic might not fall under the ambigious loss rubric, it dovetails VERY cleanly with mine. I have "lost" nearly all of my previous environments, routines, activities, and friends*. Due to bad timing, I've also lost my home and all of my possessions. And due to the ongoing and uncertain nature of this event, I do not know whether these things are truly lost or not!

Do I replace all my clothes and furniture? Or will they be recoverable some time when the lockdown is lifted? Do I rent a new apartment, or will I be able to return to my old one? Do I cancel my gym membership or is there a chance that one day I will be back at the gym? I honestly can't say, and so I sit here in the same pair of pants I've been wearing since March 14 because I only brought 2 pairs of pants and one of them had to become shorts because it got fucking hot since March 14.

*My friends are Very Online and all about the Zoom Events and such and I am not. They probably, like jenfullmoon, wonder if they will ever see me again, and to be honest if this is just how our world is now, then the answer is "no they won't." I'm sorry, even if this pandemic lasts one hundred years, I'm not doing Zoom Pub Trivia. Pub Trivia without the Pub is just a boring-ass test I don't have to take. No, I'm not joining your Whatsapp. No, I'm not joining your group text. Oh my god, no.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:34 PM on July 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Just wondering: while I agree that nobody should force you to do pub quiz without the pub, is there any method of not-in-person communication that does work for you with those friends?

I keep being stumped on how to connect with the in-person group activity people without in-person group activity being possible. Nobody responded to online ideas. Texting (their other method) gets responses sometimes to once in awhile. It's A Problem that I will not do Facebook, but I have safety issues with that one so I do not wanna go there. Ugh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:24 PM on July 22, 2020

(memailed you)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:09 PM on July 22, 2020

« Older Songlines   |   Remembering Central Avenue, L.A.’s jazz oasis Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments