Article

Finding solace as we face uncertainty and ambiguous loss

By Susan Lahey

Published June 22, 2020
Last updated June 22, 2020

In the first months of winter, we knew who we were. Most of us were barely aware of a strange, sometimes deadly disease connected to a pangolin… If we were, we Googled the animal. The virus was far away, and we were safe from it. Months ago, we centered around our jobs and homes, our routines and plans. Now COVID-19 has settled in and threatens to linger for years, leaving us unsure about who will be susceptible, whether our businesses can endure and survive, and wondering when we can travel and see our loved ones in person. Whatever future we had mapped in our heads has evaporated. It’s as if the road in front of us and the habits and relationships that gave us our bearings have disappeared in fog. We’re unmoored…lost.

This is the kind of lost you feel when some defining aspect of your life is suddenly gone—a loved one, a job, a home—and nothing about the future looks the way it did the day before. Some of us have experienced those concrete losses; others of us feel like we have, even though we haven’t. Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, spoke with me about “ambiguous losses.”

Whatever future we had mapped in our heads has evaporated. It's as if the road in front of us and the habits and relationships that gave us our bearings have disappeared in fog.

“When what we lose is ourselves through the lack of social bonds, of routines, we don’t have language for those categories of loss,” he said. “A natural response to anxiety would be fight or flight, but there’s nothing to fight and nowhere to flee. It’s largely the intangibility of the threat, which seems surreal but is very real in its effects. We hardly have a language with which we can acknowledge what’s happening, so it becomes a silent story that lives within us.”

[Related read: Holding onto the rituals we’ve learned to love as we shelter in place]

Buddhist Lama Pema Khandro Rinpoche, in a 2017 essay that could have been about this moment writes: “There is something radical about the change in our reality. We are not given options, there is no room for negotiation, and the situation cannot be rationalized away or covered up by pretense. There is a total rupture in our who-I-am-ness, and we are forced to undergo a great and difficult transformation…. The Tibetan term bardo, or “intermediate state,” is not just a reference to the afterlife. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. In American culture, we sometimes refer to this as having the rug pulled out from under us, or feeling ungrounded…to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.”

Getting comfortable with being lost

When you lose someone you love, or a job you counted on, it can take a long time to find your footing again. The same is true for us now. It’s like you’ve suddenly been dragged through a portal to a foreign place where you didn’t want to be, and you have to find your way home again. But this, Neimeyer points out, isn’t a mistake or an aberration: it’s life.

“We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. We’re constantly engaging in the coming and going of relationships, people, projects, even professions. It’s the wheel of life; constant lessons in loss.”

How people handle that experience of loss varies. Some people, Neimeyer said, will center down and become more solid in who they are and what they’re doing. This might look like getting serious about a spiritual practice, bonding closer to family, pursuing a passion that they had on a back burner.

It's like you’ve suddenly been dragged through a portal to a foreign place where you didn't want to be, and you have to find your way home again. But this, Neimeyer points out, isn’t a mistake or an aberration: it's life.

Others will loosen up and become more fluid—let go of their old ideas about who they are, embrace the transience of life and change in their own lives.

Others, Neimeyer said, will fracture. This is especially likely for those reluctant to let go of the narratives that defined them, even if those narratives no longer work. This is where the depression and anxiety, domestic abuse, gun sales, and alcoholism come from.

We’ve been given, he said, “a kind of wake-up call to clarify our life purposes and designs and review and revise our way of living. Many have a difficult time answering that call.”

[Related read: Could an ancient practice return humanity to the workplace?]

Finding sources of solace

In his research, Neimeyer said, individuals, communities, and countries that are tested by adversity and come out well are always surrounded by a large network of fully intact systems that can provide care and support. He used the example of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild the economy of Europe after World War II.

Now, he said, we have undergone a profound erosion and loss and we don’t have the number of intact systems we need for support. Where will the support come from?

“We need to remind ourselves that the built world is only one level of our relative organization,” he said. “There are larger worlds in which we’re nested. I spend probably a couple of hours a day in nature. I am refreshed by it; sustained by it.”

[Related read: What we can learn from our veterans about resiliency and connection]

Another source of solace, he said, is to find ways to help others through their suffering. Looking beyond your own suffering to the needs of others proves to be an enormous comfort, offering purpose and connection.

And then there’s drawing closer to the ones you do have in your life. Friends tell me that, in this time when everything feels unmoored, that their children are staying close to them more of the time, seeking more hugs.

Another source of solace, he said, is to find ways to help others through their suffering. Looking beyond your own suffering to the needs of others proves to be an enormous comfort, offering purpose and connection.

“Children are good at getting lost,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. “The key in survival is knowing you’re lost: Children don’t stray far, they curl up in some sheltered place at night, they know they need help.”

She also says loss, being lost, brings the experience of a loss of control. And then this:

Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in an onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake.

What’s coming next, we have never seen before. It’s our job now to decide how to greet it.