Ambiguous Loss in the Age of COVID-19

By Lori Howard

“Something just doesn’t feel right. I feel like there was all this stuff I was supposed to do. And now? It’s like everything is gone.”

A client was recently sharing her angst about what brought her to see me, an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. She was expressing the thought that almost everyone I know has been having for the last 8 months: 

“What happened to my life? I was going to go on vacation in ____________! I was about to ______________! My kid was going to college but now can’t be there in person! My husband lost his job! My mom and dad are in a senior care center and might get COVID!”

All those fill in the blanks were things we typically would have done. We would have been there. We would be dining with friends, going to church in person, flying to our niece’s wedding, attending our grandmother’s funeral, going to the prom, taking our kindergartener to school for the first time. If only there wasn’t this pandemic.

That unsettling feeling you may be having is ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is loss without closure or clear understanding. This loss leaves a person searching for answers but typically answers cannot be found.

We typically think of loss in regard to losing a loved one. When that happens, we grieve the tangible loss of the person we love. But what happens when the loss is something not so tangible? Are we still allowed to grieve? The answer is yes.

Grief emotions are typically sadness, anxiety, anger, depression, confusion, loneliness, and guilt. These emotions are also accompanied by physical responses in the body such as headaches, lack of hunger, restlessness, sleep disturbances, and stomach pain. The symptoms of grief are present in ambiguous loss as well and can sometimes last longer than typical grief symptoms since there is no real closure for what has been lost.

The losses that have been felt since COVID have varied from great losses such as the death of a loved one far away, to things as seemingly insignificant as not being able to cheer for our favorite team in person. Yet, we cannot judge what is and is not significant to any one person. The seemingly minor losses pile up, leading to a sense of overwhelming loss at some point. And when we feel overwhelmed, grief symptoms start to manifest and can affect our daily lives.

If you find yourself struggling with these symptoms, know that there is hope. First and foremost, all feelings are valid when it comes to loss. Acknowledge what you have lost and let yourself take some time to truly grieve those things.

Here are a few steps to grieve the losses you have experienced:

 1. Be open to listening to others and their experiences:
This is especially important if you have children who have experienced the loss of in-person school, sports, and any rites of passage like getting a driver’s license, first day of school, prom, and the like.

2. Honor what you have lost:
Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to feel for that loss. Instead of dismissing your loss as “not that important” or a “first world problem,” think “I really wish I could have _______.” Or “I really miss________.” Then allow yourself to sit in that sadness for a moment and grieve.

3. Share your feelings and thoughts with someone you trust.

4. Express your grief through creative outlets:
Have you ever wanted to paint? Write? Collage? Now is the time to try something new.

5. Find meaningful distractions:
An example could be social distanced dinners with friends that bring closeness and distraction from our daily COVID routine.

6. Participate in something that brings you joy.

It is important to acknowledge that everyone grieves in their own unique ways. And while COVID-19 has seemingly affected every single human on the planet, each person is unique in their grief journey. 

As you begin to embrace the losses felt by this pandemic, know you are not alone. By sharing our experiences, we become vulnerable to each other and together we can find new meaning from the losses we have endured.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4