I’ve been thinking about ambiguous loss and grief lately.
(Yes, FUN TIMES.)
My thoughts were sparked by two articles; the first, on how middle-age is impacting Gen X women (spoiler alert: badly. REALLY BADLY). The other, a letter writer wanted to feel like her single life is enough (spoiler alert: even the ‘agony aunt’ who responded struggles and fails to cultivate this feeling).
As someone who, Venn-diagram-speaking, is slap-bang where these two overlap, they made interesting reading.
And by interesting, I mean .. the other thing.
I’m incredibly lucky, though. I’m not a member of the “sandwich generation”, caught between ferrying both young children and elderly relatives around. And most of the time I enjoy having full control of the remote control, thermostat and king-sized duvet.
And yet, like many people, I sense, I have a low-level background hum of loss and grief.
Again, I’m lucky; I haven’t lost a loved one, a job, or something tangible that I can point to and say, “I have lost this”. And yet, sometimes I wonder if it’s this very lack of tangibility that means that so many of us don’t take the time to name what we’ve lost, and to grieve for it consciously.
(I’m not sure we always make/find time to grieve the things that ARE tangible; no wonder the more nebulous stuff barely gets a look-in.)
But it feels like there is an ocean of unexpressed, unwitnessed, unheld grief in the world right now. There is so much to mourn, from the global (sleep-walking into irrevocable climate disaster, wide-scale injustice, and political corruption), to the local (the deterioration of communities, and disregard for the most vulnerable), to the personal (the yawning gap between our imagined selves and our present circumstances).
No wonder so many of us are exhausted, snap, break, launch into fury, or wish to withdraw from the world completely. Our nervous systems are chronically activated by what I have started to call a “low level of emotional inflammation”, in the same way that many of our immune systems are chronically over-taxed. As one of my favourite, if saddest, songs puts it so beautifully: we act it out so it stays in.
What’s more, we carry around the perfect inflammation trigger in our pockets: there’s nothing like a quick hit of social media comparison, outrage or news to set off the smoke alarm in our brains, our amygdala, for a fresh sense of immediate threat.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: this SUCKS. And anything I’ll share to alleviate the suffering may seem trite or cliched. But I will try anyway.
The first is to acknowledge our suffering. There’s a wonderful video by Jeff Foster where he realises that our pain doesn’t want to be healed, it wants to be held. If we don’t acknowledge our pain, how can we hold it with tenderness and love? How can we mourn something if we don’t know where it hurts? I find journalling a good way to allow the quiet pain to make itself known. Allowing myself a brief pause to notice my thoughts and habits always makes a good start.
The second is to show ourselves kindness in the moment of suffering. I’m getting better at catching myself faster, but I can still judge myself for the hurt I’m feeling and can dismiss the source. Sometimes allowing myself to recognise, “Oh, I’m allowed to feel pain about that,” is enough for me also recognise that I’m feeling my thinking about the situation rather than the situation itself. Which in turn gives me more breathing space to be a kinder.
The third is especially important for me if I’m feeling lonely or lacking connection with others; to remember that I’m not alone in feeling the way I do. In fact, feeling small, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, lonely, or any number of emotions is proof that I am part of the human condition – and that thousands, in truth millions, either feel the same way, or have done, or will do.
And fourth, sometimes it’s a good idea to reduce the source of emotional inflammation – especially if it’s digital. Taking a news break is old news but given that it can feel like a year’s worth of headline-worthy news can happen in the space of 24 hours these days, it’s even more important to allow your emotional nervous system (and your actual nervous system) time to rest and recover. Resilience used to be about dealing with unexpected difficulties, not how to weather a 24/7 onslaught. Finding ways to increase our innate resilience is increasingly important; time with friends, in nature, being creative, etc all help to boost our immune systems.
And finally, know this; you’re not alone in grieving something that’s ambiguous. Loss of dreams, of hopes, of desires, of identity – right now I’m grieving all of them, and more. I’m experiencing high levels of emotional inflammation, right there with you.
We are together in this, even if we are alone.