“I don’t like to use the word acceptance, but I think we can be comfortable with what we cannot solve.”
Pauline Boss, Ph.D.
Psychologist and family therapist Pauline Boss talks about “ambiguous loss” and the futility of thinking about closure with deep grief. There is no closure, she argues, when you can’t really put a period at the end of the sentence. When you lose someone through a senseless tragedy like 9/11 where there is no body to recover and bury. More prosaically, when you lose someone through divorce, addiction, or estrangement and they are still alive but disconnected from you. In these situations it is common to experience protracted grief and a sense of loss that seems pervasive and on-going.
What makes that particular kind of grieving even harder to bear is our society’s tendency to sweep sad and unpleasant things under the rug with the harsh and inherently blaming comment, “Aren’t you over that already?” No one fully recovers or gets closure if their child commits suicide, or their husband is MIA, both ambiguous losses. They are able to go on because they find meaning in life.
As a society we could all help each other by recognizing the lingering effects of grief, all grief, not just the ambiguous kind, and stop pathologizing anyone who still grieves years after a divorce or death. Healing happens, but its trajectory is different for each one of us.
Certain connections are so deep, like that between a parent and child, that there is no way to fully heal after they are torn apart through death, Alzheimers, divorce, estrangement, or uncertainty (those cases where someone is MIA or a body is never recovered). The least we can offer people dealing with loss is compassion and the refrain, “I am so sorry you’re going through this.” There is nothing you can say to make it better. All you can give is sincere caring, your presence, a hand to hold, or a hug.
One of the best ways to go forward if you are dealing with grief is to acknowledge that sadness may always be a part of you; yet, you can still find meaning in life. How you do that depends on your proclivities. It might be crocheting blankets for newborns if you had a miscarriage, participating in one of the many walks or runs for different diseases, sending care packages to men and women deployed overseas, or anything that feels useful to you.
Another path to greater peace is through mindfulness. Pay attention to whatever is happening now, whether you are drinking a cup of tea or folding laundry. This deliberate focus can imbue each minute with purpose and meaning. Noticing beauty in the natural world, a painting, music, or someone’s smile is another way of reconnecting with life. In her book Love 2.0, author Barbara Fredrickson says these micro moments of connection can be powerfully felt as love, even among strangers. The smallest positive interaction can infuse your day with a sense of warmth that lifts your spirits and satisfies your need for connection. The trick is to cultivate more of those moments by looking for them and being grateful when they occur.
Whatever you feel, the most important thing to do is allow all your emotions and let them carry you into unchartered territory. Then, they can flow through you, as opposed to being stuck inside festering. You might even find yourself understanding the term “sweet grief,” as fully experiencing your grief can feel sweet. It’s still heart rending, but in its depth there is a tiny sense of fulfillment. Perhaps, that unexpected sweetness comes from realizing you loved someone so much and felt so incredibly connected that you are capable of mourning so completely. That ability, to give yourself over to all your emotions, can be amazingly healing. Be brave, your body, mind, and spirit were created to handle all life’s vicissitudes, including great loss.
Pauline Boss: Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search For Meaning
Barbara Fredrickson: Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection
John Kabat Zinn: Wherever You Go There You Are
Pena Chodron: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang