Life is filled with dichotomies. Martin Luther once described our struggle to deal with these dichotomies as being similar to a drunk trying to ride a horse. We are always falling off on one side or the other.
That word picture describes my experience with ambiguous loss.
According to Pauline Boss, who coined the term and did decades of clinical research on it, the challenge of living with ambiguous loss involves learning to live well with both having and not having at the same time. By itself, that is an enormously difficult task for anyone. We generally find ourselves doing one or the other.
It is even more challenging when two people (or a whole family) experience the same ambiguous loss and one is fixated on “having” and the other with “not having”—i.e., falling off on different sides of the horse.
That’s the story-line of our book, Hit Hard. For several years after our son suffered a traumatic brain injury, I fixated on the Zach we still had but lived in denial about the son we had lost. Tammy did far better at acknowledging and grieving the son we had lost but struggled to revise her attachment to the son we still had.
That dynamic torqued and still challenges our relationship.
I have revisited those lessons in the midst of COVID-19. Ironically, I have seen the roles reversed in our experience of ambiguous losses related to the pandemic. Tammy, on the one hand, has been energized by the crisis and quick to revise her ways of connecting with people and living and working in a world that has radically changed.
I, on the other hand, have struggled to revise my attachments to the world and specifically people who are still there, but not there the way they used to be. I have, however, given myself permission to identify, mourn, and lament the losses I’m feeling. I’m okay with not being as productive as normal.
Together we find ourselves returning to the playbook that helped us better navigate personally and relationally the challenge of both having and not having. Every day we try to put our soul in a place to acknowledge, feel, mourn and lament the losses that we are experiencing. We also have an ongoing conversation (often over dinner or on prayer walks) about how to revise our roles, goals, and rhythm of life so that we can better adapt to and live well with our new reality. Most importantly we remind ourselves often that we need to be gentle with each other and heed Boss’s warning that, “Ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss.”
Toward what side of the horse do you lean?
Photography by Bonnie Sanders