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Ambiguous loss: How to face the enormity of our current grief

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Grief conversations

Grief is an emotion I barely know. I don’t mean that as a brag; instead, I feel cowed by its looming eventuality and intimidated by its presence in others. Since I’ve never been there, I don’t know how to treat those who are experiencing it. 

The United States’ poor response to the virus has made us a leader in coronavirus deaths, accounting for 21% of worldwide deaths related to COVID-19 while only making up 4% of the world’s population. That, added to the ongoing trail of murders by police officers, deaths of protesters at home and afar, and wildfire season gearing up, the list of awful things that we’re constantly aware of goes on and on. 

I don’t need to tell you. The likelihood that we or people we know have been or will be touched by loss right now is high. That’s why I wanted to face grief and attempt to understand it, so I can help others through it or recognize it in myself when it comes. 

What is grief?

I attended the webinar “Ambiguous Loss: Grieving in the Time of COVID-19,” hosted by Charlene Ray, a licensed social worker and grief counselor, in order to understand what she termed the “global grief pandemic.”

After classes got cancelled in March, when my roommate and I were deciding whether we should leave Seattle and go back home, we must’ve made almost 10 entirely different, thought-out plans in the course of three days. I inexplicably burst into tears at the kitchen table and lashed out at my roommates over small things. 

As Ray described common signs of grief — trouble making decisions, irritability, exhaustion or fatigue, confusion, numbness, physical aches and pains, and immovable sadness — I began to recognize my emotional state when the reality of the pandemic began to set in.

A form of grief Ray discussed as being especially relevant right now is “ambiguous loss,” which occurs when the loss is unclear and inexact, defying closure. For example, a family member who is mentally no longer present but still alive would be an ambiguous loss. In these scenarios, the future is unknown, and we may feel stuck in a limbo. Oftentimes, people will respond to ambiguous loss by attempting to control the small parts of lives that they can.

Both the continuing pandemic and the reality of police brutality feel inescapable and unending. It’s hard to look forward to brighter days when we have no idea when there will be an end to this seven-month nightmarish news cycle.

There are also the well-known stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ray asserted, however, that these may not occur in a certain order, and you may make it through one stage and then be back in it a week later. The progression through the feelings is nonlinear. 

In terms of the pandemic, I’m sure we all remember the stage of denial, when we all were telling ourselves that the flu kills many more people every year, and we remember the anger when everything got cancelled.

However, Ray reframed this experience by saying that, as grief is a response to losing something or someone that we love, it is also a reminder of that love.

“Grief is a form of gratitude for being alive. We have grief when we lose something we love,” she said. 

To that end, she suggested writing out a list of the things you have lost. You don’t have to see it as ruminating or dwelling on the negative. Instead, think of it as a way to honor those parts of life that are important to you. According to Ray, letting those feelings of loss go unacknowledged can actually lead to something called “unmetabolized grief,” which is when unexpressed grief comes to the surface as a physical symptom, like headaches or body pain.

It’s likely, as we shift back into another quarter of online school, that we’ll experience a resurgence of sadness for the things we’re missing out on. For me, this is my last quarter at the UW, and even though it felt silly, I found myself crying when I rode my bike through campus over the summer, knowing my time in that space was over seven months ago, that I had my last in-person class without even knowing it. This, I guess, was a remnant of that grief still moving through me.

How do you support someone experiencing grief?

Grief can sometimes make a person unreachable or unrecognizable. 

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In her book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion explores the complicated landscape of grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death. This book opened me up to one of the most important lessons when dealing with a friend who is going through something you cannot understand: do not personalize their response to it. 

Didion writes, “although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is great solace … none have the right to feel hurt if they are told that they can neither be of use nor received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.” 

Essentially, it’s not about you. If they don’t want to see you or if they offend you in some way, you must not take that as a personal offense, but instead make space to hold them through it.

Ray asserted that grief is not something that can be “fixed.” 

“You never get over grief; you learn how to live with it,” she said during the webinar.

You can’t take it away from someone; there’s no perfect word of advice that will ease their suffering. Ray asserted that we all need someone who will sit with us and not try to fix us. 

The necessity of mourning

While grief is what the inward experience of loss is called, mourning, on the other hand, is the outward expression of that. For some people that means crying, gathering at a funeral or memorial, or participating in other cultural rituals. Mourning is essential, according to Ray, so we don’t get “stuck” in grief.

However, due to the nature of the pandemic, many of these collective rituals of mourning have been off limits. We can’t gather or support each other physically; funerals have had to be reduced to small gatherings, if allowed at all; and houses of worship are one of the riskiest venues for virus transmission.

And how does one formally mourn a cancelled wedding or the inability to see one’s family for the foreseeable future? Are we even comfortable calling our reaction to that grief?

In the months-long protests beginning with the killing of George Floyd, punctuated by long marches and cries for justice, I think there is a picture to be painted of a very powerful expression of grief. In the 28-day-long (at the time of writing) art installation put on by the UW BLM chapter at the George Washington statue, demanding its removal, I think we can see evidence of how grief calls us to action. 

“Working with our grief and not letting it get stuck is suicide prevention,” Ray said.

No loss is the same, but unless you’re still firmly holding out in the denial stage, I think it’s safe to say we have all experienced it in some way. In April, I felt like getting up in the morning was completely pointless. Naming that feeling as grief has allowed me to work through some of the sadness and disappointment these last seven months have brought.

“We all love, so we all grieve,” Ray said.  

Grief right now is a reminder of how joyful and full life once was.  As the year continues to unfold, attempt to honor your loss without comparing it to the grief of others. 

Reach Pacific Wave Co-Editor Charlotte Houston at Twitter: @lilgarlicclove

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