The Lighter Side of Transformation

with Lisa Wessan, LICSW

On the “Myth of Closure,” Ambiguous Loss and Complicated Grief

“Everyone experiences ambiguous loss if only from breaking up with someone, or having aging parents or kids leaving home. As we learn from the people who must cope with the more catastrophic situations of ambiguous loss, we learn how to tolerate the ambiguity in our more common losses in everyday life.” 

– Pauline Boss, Ph.D.

In my immediate family, several of my nearest and dearest have battled with cancer over the years…both of my paternal grandparents, may they rest in peace,  my dear first cousin Stephanie (may she live to be a super centenarian) and my delightful and fierce Aunt Yvette (known as “Auntie”), who is currently in the throes of post-rehab adjustment and palliative care.  It has been a long and grueling journey for all my loved ones.

Sometimes I struggle with feeling powerless, and living so far away from my family in Sarasota, FL. When they lived in New York, it was so much easier to visit. Sadly,  I can’t make frequent visits to Sarasota. The only “power” I do have is to send intentional healing and loving energy to my Auntie and family…and to practice radical acceptance so that I will function with some measure of inner peace here in my world.

Lately, my Auntie has been in and out of the nursing home,  and her life is severely compromised by her illness.  As harsh as this has been is for her, since April 2015,  I have also been witnessing how Auntie’s dying process is affecting everyone around her.

My cousins are fraught with anxiety and grief. Others are  a hot mess, watching Auntie dying so slowly, not able to process their feelings and find some relief.  Some people get trapped in the “Blame Game,” and are always looking to find ways to defocus their pain by pointing at others (that’s a separate article, worth exploring soon).

We are all coping with the ambiguity of Auntie being here, yet not here.  She is no longer resembling her true self as we knew her.  Sometimes she is delirious, sometimes she is too weak to talk. As her body deteriorates, she is no longer living the full and robust life she once enjoyed.

ambiguous loss1

This pain we are all experiencing has a name…it is called Ambiguous Loss.  “Ambiguous loss is a loss that occurs without closure or understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.” (Wikipedia)

There are a variety of types of ambiguous loss.  One type is when people go missing and the body is never found.  For example, a person does not return from a sailing trip, or from a hiking excursion, or war, or they are kidnapped.  Their loved ones still feel a lack of closure because the body was not found.   “Maybe they will return…” lingers in the mind.

After 9/11,  all of us in NYC were processing personal and professional ambiguous loss for all of our New Yorkers who were lost in the pile of bodies that were never recovered.

Another kind of ambiguous loss is when people experience a new emotional boundary that hurts.  This happens when people get divorced, or when someone ignores you, stops talking to you, shuts you out of their life.  Any kind of break-up creates ambiguous loss, because the person is still here, yet not here. They are alive, but dead to you.   This is considered more painful loss than when someone actually dies.

ambiguous loss3

Medical illness and addictions cause ambiguous loss.

Ambiguous loss also occurs when a loved one has Altzheimers or dementia, and they no longer recognize social connections. Similarly, when someone is very ill, such as my Auntie, we have ambiguous loss because the illness is transforming our loved one into someone other than the person we always knew. We are mourning the living remnants of our loved one…so excruciating and bitter.

When someone is living with an addiction, this too causes their personal relations to deteriorate and they are not fully present for their loved ones. Again, they are here but not here.   I have a friend who had a beautiful daughter in Cambridge, MA,  who chose to be homeless.  Her daughter was an alcoholic.  My friend tried all methods of intervention and help. Nothing worked. My friend suffered with ambiguous loss for so many years. Her daughter was a pianist, absolutely lovely.   She died a few years ago,  at 35, and it was one of the most heart wrenching tragedies I experienced.  My friend is still recovering from this painful loss.

Learning to live a good life with ambiguous loss

I recently listened to a wonderful and insightful podcast interview with ambiguous loss pioneer Pauline Boss, Ph.D., who originally coined the term “ambiguous loss.”   Krista Tippett hosts Dr. Boss on her podcast, On Being.  You can listen here:

The Myth of Closure [UNEDITED VERSION, 1.5 hours]

The Myth of Closure [EDITED VERSION, 1 hour]

I prefer the unedited versions of Tippett’s interviews, because there are sometimes fascinating nuances that are deleted to make the long form interview fit into an hour. But I’m sure whichever one you listen to will be rewarding!

One of the ideas I took away from Dr. Boss’ talk was that we will never have complete closure from our ambiguous losses, or from our complicated grief.  What we can do is become  more adept at processing our negative feelings and difficult thoughts. Dr. Boss has some wonderful suggestions on the process.

Cognitive restructuring, which can be learned, is a big part of the solution.  Dr. Boss’ stories and explanations are very helpful in deconstructing the different kinds of ambiguous loss that we all have in our lives.

Even though I learned about ambiguous loss and complicated grief in graduate school, it seems I keep deepening my learning about it more every year, from clients who are struggling with painful divorce, adult children with addictions, my Auntie’s battle with cancer, and for all the ongoing loss of freedoms in the world that never seems to subside.

Fun fact: Ambiguous loss is clearly part of our psychospiritual journey — for it forces us to grow and move to new levels of compassion and acceptance of things we cannot control.  “Lack of power, that is our dilemma,” says Alcoholics Anonymous  (Bill W., 1976).  Yes, in our culture, we seek to control, cure, fix and manage everyone and everything as much as possible. We don’t like messy endings.

Yet what I have come to know, is that true mastery of life is being able to live in ambiguity with peace, even joy.  My life is far from perfect…yet I am more often feeling positive, grateful,  uplifted, inspired and anticipating good interventions that will transform it.

If we can learn to live in that “not knowing” place and be peaceful — that is a vast improvement on “hating ambiguity” and perhaps yelling at G-d or the Universe, or twisting into knots over why bad things do happen to good people…again, very messy, so annoying.

The truth is, when it comes to matters of love, there is no closure. As they say at the Grief Toolbox,  “Closure is not part of the grieving process, nor is it necessary for healing. A connection formed in love can’t be closed.”  Dr. Boss confirmed this with her years of research on ambiguous loss, leading to her forthcoming book on “The Myth of Closure.”

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As Dr. Boss discussed in the interview, our Western culture wants neatly packaged endings and for everyone to move on as quickly as possible.   There is plenty of shaming that goes on, as in “Aren’t you over that yet?”

Sadly, our culture does not tolerate ambiguous loss very well at all.  It requires more Eastern, dialectical thinking.  To be able to say non-binary statements such as “She is alive, but also dead,”  “He is not here, but he is possibly still alive,”  or “She looks like Auntie, but this is not Auntie anymore,” requires a leap from dualistic thinking to a more dialectical thinking which allows us to embrace opposite beliefs without sinking into a deep depression or disruptive anxiety vortex.

Solution Focused Suggestions

For today, I invite you to learn more about ambiguous loss, and start to apply these non-dualistic, non-binary, dialectical thinking ideas to your situation.

  • Listen to the podcast above, and learn some skills to help process your ambiguous grief.
  • Perhaps find a good therapist who can help you learn to cope better with your struggles.  Good news: coping skills can be learned!
  • Learn to laugh at the absurdities, paradoxes and incongruities of life (Gavin, 2010; Wessan, 2013).
  • Practice your Distress Tolerance skills …join a Dialectical Behavior Therapy group.  You may then find it easier to work through the painful moments, and allow yourself to live in ambiguity with, dare I say it, some joy!

 

Onward and Upward,

Lisa Wessan

 

References

Gavin, J. (03 Sept 2010). Laughing with the Joys and Troubles of Life Leads to Growth. The Chelmsford Patch. Found at https://mirthmaven.blog/2010/09/16/lisa-wessan-interviewed-in-the-chelmsfor/

Pauline Ross, Ph.D. https://www.ambiguousloss.com/

W., Bill. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous : the story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. New York:Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Fourth edition, Chapter 4, We Agnostics. P. 45. 

Wessan, L. (2013).  Using Humor and Laughter in Therapy. Focus Journal. National Association of Social Workers.  Vol. 40, No. 4. 3,11.

Copyright © by Lisa Wessan 2019. All rights reserved.
www.LisaWessan.com

 

 

 

 

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How to improve your Interpersonal Effectiveness

The full scope of Interpersonal Effectiveness focuses on improving communication, learning to set healthy boundaries, learning to validate self and others, gaining confidence in asking for what you want,  enrolling others to help you in your dreams and goals, and letting go of toxic relationships.

 

Below is a sample of  one of my lesson plans for  Interpersonal Effectiveness.  (This is a segment from 14 classes on this topic.)

 

Preventing Compassion Fatigue

It can very often be difficult to say no to people who make demands of us, and if we say no, we can get caught up in self-critical thoughts leading us to feel guilty. To avoid feeling guilty, we just keep on saying “yes” to every request.

Someone asks us to do something: 

Say No diagram

We can learn ways of saying “No” that don’t lead us to think self-critically or feel guilty. For example:

  • I’m sorry but I really can’t take on anything else at the moment.
  • I’m quite busy right now. Perhaps another time.
  • I’d like to help you out, but I just don’t feel up to it at the moment.
  • Thank you for asking me. You’re a nice person, but I don’t want to go out with you.
  • I don’t need a new roof (double glazing, vacuum cleaner etc). I’m happy with what I have thank you.

 

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  • If the person seems to have trouble accepting your “No,” then just keep repeating yourself, over and over if necessary. Be a BROKEN RECORD! Practice what one of my students calls Polite Perseverance…You might have to add the word “No” to the beginning of those statements, perhaps with some emphasis on that word. For example:
  • No. I’m sorry but I really can’t at the moment.

 

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Be wary of those self-critical thoughts afterwards. Practice challenging and/or dismissing them, by telling yourself:

  • I explained to them why I couldn’t do it.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It would only end up upsetting me if I agreed to it – this is best for me. If I feel less tired and not resentful, then I might be a better position to help them out next time.

They’re just thoughts – I don’t need to pay them any attention (then put your focus of attention on something else).

The following dialectic affirmations about control and esteem can be helpful for finding that balance.

  • I cannot control some things but I am not helpless.
  • I cannot control other people but I am not helpless.
  • I am not responsible for those things I cannot control.
  • I accept those things in myself that I cannot change.
  • I can make positive choices for myself.
  • My strengths and abilities deserve my appreciation. Appreciate those abilities you have.

 

Create your own affirmations by completing the following sentences:

I am not powerless, I can ___________________________________________________

I have the right to refuse ___________________________________________________

I am not helpless, I can _____________________________________________________

I deserve to _________________________________________________________________

Remember, a wise person once said “Repetition is the mother of skill…” so aim to  repeat these phrases at least twice a day, with focused energy, enthusiasm and passion!

Onward and Upward,

Lisa Wessan

 

___________________________________________________________________________________________
NOTES:

The DBT Program in my office covers these modules:

  1. DBT Core Mindfulness [focusing skills]
  2. Distress Tolerance [crisis survival skills]
  3. Emotion Regulation [de‐escalation skills]
  4. Interpersonal Effectiveness [‘people skills’]

During class, we role play the act of saying “No” and turn these into powerful “Moves” to help you build new neural networks in your brain. We combine neurology, physiology and cognitive restructuring to do this, and sometimes add music and dancing to ramp up our energy. This  helps you develop a fresh new response more easily and will become your “new normal”  response to people’s inappropriate or untimely requests.

** For more information, please visit www.lisawessan.com 

 

Copyright © by Lisa Wessan 2018. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Laughter Therapy for Post-Primary Stress Disorder

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One of my favorite sources for excellent international (and national) news coverage is a magazine called THE WEEK.  It is chock full of great executive summaries, plus the editors of THE WEEK have a healthy sense of humor. They express their humor in many ways, such as with their weekly sidebar/column, “Only in America.”  They also have a column for “Good week for/Bad week for” which always gives me a good chuckle, again based on fact checked news stories.

My best laughter therapy from THE WEEK often shows up in The Week Contest, when they ask us to help name something, or label something, or describe something useful to help sort out the news.

The most recent Contest was about creating a new diagnosis for dealing with the current political climate…here are the results, for your therapeutic laughter du jour:

Source: THE WEEK, 10/21/16, page 38:

Last week’s question: The American Psychological Association has found that more than half of Americans identify the 2016 presidential election as a significant source of stress in their lives. Please come up with a psychological term that describes the unique feeling of anxiety induced by this race.

RESULTS:

THE WINNER: “Sufferage”
Phyllis Klein, New York City

SECOND PLACE: “ADHD (Another day with Hillary and Donald)”
Don Walker, Lexington, Mass.

THIRD PLACE: Democrazy
Peg O’Neil, Bloomingdale, N.J.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

“Strep vote”
Ken Kellam III, Dallas

“Campains”
Valerie Resnick, New York City

“Polliosis”
Dorothy L. Delman, New York City

“POTUS parting depression”
Robert Koshiyama, San Francisco

“Boast rhetoric stress disorder”
Ken Liebman, Williston, Vt.

“Seasonal elective disorder
Emily Aborn, Temple, N.H.

“Pair-annoy-ya”
Richard Pitruzzello, Hanceville, Ala.

“Polls traumatic stress disorder”
Justin Bookey, Santa Monica, Calif.

“Poli-tics”
Curtis Irwin, Clearfield, Pa.

“Turnout burnout”
Peter Bergin, Kings Park, N.Y.

I’m curious, which one is your favorite? Or do you have a better diagnostic term for us to use?

Yes, politics and our election process are serious business, but let’s not get sick from watching this drama unfold!

Onward and Upward,

Lisa Wessan

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What makes a strong woman?

Laughing at the insanity of life is very worthwhile. Strong women laugh early, laugh often, and laugh deeply. -Lisa Wessan

I was featured in this book a few years ago, as one of 101 “remarkable women” who were quoted on this topic…this is a lovely book, great gift item for the women you want to empower… I’m featured on page 33, available here at www.amazon.com.

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