Why Am I Grieving? 3 Tips For Coping With Ambiguous Loss

emotional intelligence 

By Guest Author

Why am I grieving? 3 Tips for Coping with Ambiguous Loss

By Julie Johnson

I looked back at my Instagram post from the early stages of quarantine and virtual learning and found this post:

When my kids saw their teachers and friends in today’s parade after two months of virtual learning, I started crying. This whole thing brings up every human emotion I have. It’s awesome and brutal all at the same time. I am not sure I have language for what it is I am feeling at this moment, but I am #holdingboth.

It turns out that the language I was seeking can be summed up in two words: ambiguous loss, a term coined by a family therapist and author, Pauline Boss.

Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be,” says Boss.

Learning to cope with a global pandemic creates a widespread level of ambiguous loss. It’s been within this paradox of embracing the innovation of “the new normal” while grieving “the old normal” that I have felt it most. I didn’t have a language for what I was experiencing or really a model of knowing how to grieve because there has not been any closure. We are left struggling to cope with uncertainty. Boss’s work further supported me in creating clarity around this concept in her podcast On Being with Krista Tippett:

Ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent. It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place. But if we learn to cope with uncertainty, we must realize that there are differing views of the world, even when that world is less challenged by ambiguity. If we are to turn the corner and cope with uncertain losses, we must first temper our hunger for mastery. This is the paradox.” 

Currently, as I write this blog, nearly a year into the Covid-19 era, I am grieving the loss and change of many things such as the culture of my kids’ school before Covid, friends and family I won’t be able to see for the foreseeable future, eating at restaurants with a group of friends without wearing masks, playdates, and walking into a school or traveling without having to do a risk assessment.

Exploring the impact of ambiguous loss in my life led me right back to my therapist’s office. My therapist specializes in addressing issues around both trauma and grief. In therapy, we investigated the impact of ambiguous loss with Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS is a psychotherapy approach developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1990s that supports a person in understanding the different parts, motives, and aspects of themselves as an internal family or union. Learning more about our self-network can help us better understand our inner world, meeting our overall emotional needs, and moving away from self-criticism and toward self-compassion. 

IFS therapy supported me in cultivating more compassionate self-talk around ambiguous loss. Instead of talking to myself critically about what I “should” be feeling, I continued to acknowledge and validate the loss that my inner parts felt through compassionate affirmations such as: “I am already whole and there is nothing to fix, only to acknowledge.” or “It’s okay for things to feel hard.”

Disenfranchised Grief

It’s important to carve out space for another type of loss I have witnessed among my students who have black and brown skin. This grief isn’t new. It’s a grief I have seen many of them carry for the eleven years I have been an educator. Many of my students appear to be grieving the things our society doesn’t allow them to grieve: the incarceration of a parent, the death of a loved one to suicide, or the grief of never experiencing equality and constantly having to validate their worthiness as humans with dark skin in a world where they aren’t valued. This kind of grief is called disenfranchised grief.

Disenfranchised grief is a term coined by Ken Doka and defined as grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.

Other ways people might experience disenfranchised grief are:

  • Pregnancy loss
  • Infant loss
  • Infertility 
  • Abortion
  • Loss or changes in our health and wellbeing

What can make disenfranchised grief and ambiguous loss so challenging for some, at least in my situation, is the lack of language I had to express it. Likewise, the presence of disenfranchised grief among my students is normalized and expected since oppression is the norm among black and brown communities. 

Tips for Working with Ambiguous Loss & Disenfranchised Grief

Ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief are two different terms with a common thread: 1) there is a lack of language to describe our feelings and thoughts around loss and 2) there is a need for creating a safe expression for our traumatic events. So, what might be the next steps for you to navigate these two types of loss? Here are three tips: 

1. Seek out a therapist that specializes in Internal Family Systems

In my experiences, IFS helped me identify the language of the emotions around the ambiguous loss I incurred by helping me identify the emotions behind the grief for each part within me. 

My therapist suggested I become aware of each part of myself to get to know its personality and needs by creating a Pinterest board. I pinned articles, memes, quotes, art, fashion, etc for each of the five parts within me based on their developmental point of view. Sometimes parts have names and titles and other times they don’t. How a person experiences their internal parts is unique to each person. 

I identify my parts by their ages:

  • The 5-year-old part was pinning Rainbow Bright and My Little Pony photos
  • My 12-year-old self was pinning her favorite hairstyles, songs, quotes, and art
  • The 19-year-old me was posting quotes from Avril Lavine
  • The 22-year-old version that used cooking to cope with unknown emotions pinned fun recipes
  • And lastly, the 29-year-old part that finds solace in advocating for her needs posted quotes from feminist leaders.  

All of these different parts have a role in ensuring that I was getting the connection I was seeking, even if their ways of coping weren’t always the best or healthiest.

As I saw each part express its personality and worldview through the Pinterest board, I began to understand what each part needed and desired. This allowed me to work through the impact of ambiguous loss and grief and its impact on my own emotions.

2. Body Mapping

Whether you are working through ambiguous loss or disenfranchised grief, body mapping can support you in telling stories through visual images and self-reflection, focusing on the embodied sense. This process can support someone looking to explore the connection between their emotions and their somatic experience.

I made a body mapping journal and recorded where I was feeling my grief each morning and any emotions or memories that came up as I focused on that part of the body. This helped me create a sense of clarity around how I was holding grief and allowed me to create an emotional dictionary for describing the loss I was personally seeing and witnessing around me. 

3. Words List 

One thing I know from my experience with exploring grief is that having a word list for accessing emotions around ambiguous loss has helped me expand my language around loss as a whole. When you find yourself experiencing confusing emotions, feel free to use the emotions word list        

Disclaimer:  This blog is written from my perspective as a white, able-bodied woman and public educator. I write this as only an observer to my own experiences and my experiences as an educator to students who live in bodies that look different than mine. My observations do not reflect the accuracy or entirety of their experiences. These are only my observations as their teacher through my view of the world.

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