Ambiguous Grief

How are you coping this holiday season?

In response to the latest restrictions involving social gatherings and measures that have been taken in general to stay safe with Coronavirus, things will look much different this year. I know for myself, I will be celebrating at home. The physical presence of family/ friends who usually gather at this time of year with me will be missed. Many of us are mourning the loss of holiday traditions as we know them. I describe it as an experience of ambiguous grief. While our loved ones may still be alive and even live nearby, they can feel distant. The physical separation can be such a painful loss. I am grateful for the advances in technology that have allowed us to continue work, school, and social interactions in ways that would otherwise not be possible. This does not; however, replace the experience of meeting someone face-to-face and sharing an embrace. Parents, grandparents, friends, and family are grieving as they mourn ambiguous loss, perhaps searching for answers to bring some comfort.

The loss is ambiguous as we are uncertain how long it will last. The effects of prolonged uncertainty take both a toll on one’s physical and mental well-being. Many people have already lost so much…jobs, financial security, COVID-related deaths. Accomplishments such as graduating high school/ college and celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries have looked different as do the holidays. The stages of grief can be helpful to recognize and name some of the emotions you may be feeling right now. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. There is no “right” way to grieve and this will look different for each person. For some, acceptance may come faster than others and we may go back and forth among various stages.

So what now?

One thing that has been helpful when feeling a strong difficult emotion is to think in terms of opposites. Recognizing ambiguous grief, leaning into the emotion to mourn and move through it as we grieve with others can provide space to celebrate what remains. As we enter into a season of Thanksgiving, I am choosing to express gratitude–to notice and appreciate the important people and things that remain in my life. One theme that has definitely come up this year is noticing what really matters when you begin to remove all the distractions from life.
For those of you who watch Charlie Brown around the holidays, I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree and Linus’ response to “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Here are some additional strategies to help cope during times of ambiguous grief around the Thanksgiving holiday.

Notice the Positives:

What is going well? Do you find yourself focusing on the negative or positive aspects of your life/ circumstances? Try writing down three things each day and reflect on these.
Where are my priorities? What really matters? Where do I find my source of happiness? Am I able to experience joy in my life? Who can I lean on for support? What brings me comfort? What am I thankful for?

Express Gratitude:

Take time to slow down and notice who and what you are grateful for, and express this! Try being creative in your expression of gratitude such as dance, writing letters, journaling, volunteering, verbalizing words aloud, meditating, prayer, silence, etc. The possibilities are endless!

Discover Hope:

Are you able to find a source of peace, happiness, and even your within the midst of your circumstances? Reflection on one’s values and cultural identity can be helpful in understanding how you view the world. If you would like a place to reflect and process values, identity, and/ or existential concerns, therapy can be a great place to do so. Try investing in new or different traditions this year. Take time to nurture your body and mind rather than escaping or numbing with self-destructive behaviors.

Seek Support:

Reach out to your friends and family. Don’t be afraid to reach out for community support. If you are currently struggling with anxiety, depression, or grief/ loss, CARE is happy to help.

There are also excellent local and crisis resources available such as the National Suicide Lifeline: 800-273-8255 for 24/7 support.

Written by Charlotte Johnson MA, LPCC 

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