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 receiving hospice care.  It has been a long and grueling journey with cancer 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.

For a while, my Auntie was in and out of the nursing home while she battled her cancer and other complications from treatment. Her life was 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 being 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, on the Blame Game, 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.

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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.”

ambigousloss5

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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More PRESENCE, less presents…the Mindful holiday season

 

Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store. – Dr. Seuss

Christmas isn’t a season, it’s a feeling. – Edna Ferber

For it is in giving that we receive. – Francis of Assisi

May you practice connecting with more Presence during these holidays, and have less of a need for presents…and I hope you and your loved ones have a healthy, joyful holiday season and New Year!

No matter what, each day is a new beginning…

Onward and Upward,

With warm blessings and love,

Lisa Wessan

 

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Copyright © by Lisa Wessan 2018. All rights reserved.
www.LisaWessan.com

 

 

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Thoughts for the Season

Thank You Gratitude

There is a crack in everything,

that’s how the light gets in.


~ Leonard Cohen

 

There’s a lot to be grateful for this season, and I’m grateful for the never ending Light that goes to any length to reach us…

I appreciate this verse from Leonard Cohen, that when you are having a breakdown , aka cracking up,  you are actually have a breakthrough.  Those cracks allow us to grow, learn and transform.

No cracks, no wisdom.  It’s all part of the mysterious dialectical personal growth process we engage in as living beings.  We are not aiming for perfection, but we are aiming for wholeness.

I hope this message finds you in good health, moving towards wholeness, having more breakthroughs than breakdowns!

 

Happy, healthy, spirit of Thanksgiving and holiday season,

 

Onward and Upward,

Lisa Wessan

 

You might enjoy one of my recent articles…

 

Wessan, L. (2018). Walk and Talk Therapy: Moving Towards Wholeness.  Social Work Voice. 16-17.

Wessan, L. (2018). When you are Addicted to Drama…

Wessan, L. (2018). Holiday Blues? Pause and Take a Mental Laxative (Forgiveness 101).

 

New Groups Starting…

UP  Next in Westford, MA:

Open Enrollment Period for Adult DBT Skills Group ends 1/3/19. This next semester we cover Mindfulness and Interpersonal Effectiveness.  Learn more HERE. 

DBT Skills Group for Teens starts 1/8/19. 

 

Copyright © by Lisa Wessan 2018. All rights reserved.
www.LisaWessan.com

 

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The Mayonnaise Jar and 2 Cups of Coffee

 

When things in your lives seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the 2 cups of  coffee.

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of  him.  When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty  mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.  He then asked the  students if the jar was full.  They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar.  He shook the jar lightly.  The pebbles rolled into the open areas between  the golf balls.  He then asked the students again if the jar was full.  They  agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.

Of  course, the sand filled up everything else.  He asked once more if the jar was  full.  The students responded with an unanimous “yes.”

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space  between the sand.  The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.  The golf balls are the important  things–your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite  passions—and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life  would still be full.

The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and  your car.

The sand is everything else—the small stuff.  “If you put the sand into  the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf  balls.  The same goes for life.  If you spend all your time and energy on the  small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

“Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with  your children.  Take time to get medical checkups.  Take your spouse out to  dinner.  Play another 18.  There will always be time to clean the house and  fix the disposal.  Take care of the golf balls first—the things that really  matter.  Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented.  The professor smiled.  “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s  always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.”

~ Author Unknown

 

 

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

For those of you celebrating the Jewish New Year, may it be sweet, joyful, prosperous and all in good health!

Wishing you a Year of:
Friendship
Brotherhood
Good communication
Strengthening connections
And keeping in touch!
A year blessed with rain
But without storms
A year of brilliance
Focused towards your targets
A year of equality
Of versatility and variations
A well balanced year
A year of giving
Of creativity
A year for listening
For tolerance
And bringing hearts together
In this year let’s see only the “full half”
A sweet year
A golden year
With silver linings
A year of exploring the world
But without losing sight of the compass
A well measured year
A year of surprises
But without dramas
A year of good health
A perfect year
A HAPPY AND BLESSED NEW YEAR !!!!!!!!!!!!
– Author Unknown

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Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

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Pessimists forget to laugh, optimists laugh to forget. ~ Author Unknown

More to come…

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What is laughter therapy? Another definition…

What is laughter therapy? One brief definition… http://ow.ly/4PeFK

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Mary Taylor of Concord, MA, offers laughter meditation testimonial…

Laughter Meditation testimonial from Concord, MA. http://ow.ly/4NmW6

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A little madness in the Spring is wholesome even for the King. – Emily Dickinson

A little madness in the Spring is wholesome even for the King. – Emily Dickinson http://ow.ly/i/b36e

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