The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 825,000 lives in the United States and millions more around the world, but it has stolen far more.
Loved ones have died without families by their side. Millions of people have suffered from lockdowns isolation and social distancing. Young people lost the graduation rituals and saying goodbye to their classmates.
People can yearn for closure, which psychologists define as the act or feeling of ending or solving a problem we are suffering from. But we’ll never get over what COVID-19 has taken from us, says Pauline Boss, retired family therapist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota. And she wants us to know it’s OK. In fact, she argues, not feeling closed is actually healthy as we seek to move forward in life.
âClosure is a really good word in trade deals where you make a deal, or shut the road in a flood,â she says. “But it is a cruel word in human relations.”
In his latest book, published in December, The Myth of Closure: An Ambiguous Loss in Times of Pandemic and Change, Boss offers ways to heal the catastrophic daily losses of the past two years – without trying to erase them.
The boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” as a graduate student. Since the 1970s, she has studied how people view the loss of a loved one who has disappeared in sometimes unclear ways, such as those who are missing after the 9/11 attacks, or someone with dementia or mental illness. serious.
An ambiguous loss can also come from bereavement that does not directly involve death, such as the end of a relationship or separation from one’s home country – or the disruption of norms and social networks caused by the pandemic. . In the United States, black Americans suffer a continuing ambiguous loss ranging from slavery to police violence today. And many people experience this kind of grief in the face of the inexorable effects of climate change.
To heal from such loss, Boss says, we must recognize what has been lost and then give it new meaning. “Our best option is to face with some sort of action – seeking justice, working for a cause, or protesting to right the wrong.”
NPR spoke with Boss about his new book.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You coined the term âambiguous lossâ and studied it for decades. Was there anything you learned about this during the pandemic that surprised you?
My husband died during this time, not of COVID but of a stroke. I was surprised that isolation was a good time to grieve. It allowed me to cry in a way that whenever I was sad I could be sad at that time and didn’t have to worry about being with other people and being around. compel me. I was surprised at how I adjusted to not being able to go out and do the things that comforted me before.
I’ve heard other people say the same thing – that they were more adaptable than they thought they were. I also saw him during World War II. I was then a young person. People adapted and were extremely resilient and made it out, those who were still alive. I see him now. I am once again pleasantly surprised by human resilience. It’s not true for everyone, but it’s true, I think, for most people. And so I say this to people: pat yourself on the back.
Are the people who deny or downplay the pandemic trying to force some sort of closure on this period of ambiguous loss – are they trying to button it up and move on?
That’s right. They say it’s over or it never happened.
You cannot continue to hope that we will return to what our society was like before the pandemic. Changes have already taken place. And they won’t come back after it’s over. You should go ahead with something new to look forward to.
What makes ambiguous loss so difficult to deal with?
An ambiguous loss is a situation that exceeds human expectations. We know death: it hurts, but we are used to loved ones dying and having funerals and rituals. With an ambiguous loss, there are no rituals; there is no customs. Society doesn’t even recognize it. The people who experience it are therefore very isolated and lonely, which makes the situation worse.
Many people in this world have been forced to live with: families with missing loved ones such as missing soldiers or kidnapped children, as well as people with loved ones with dementia. What I have learned over the years is that most of them go on to live relatively good lives with the ambiguity of loss. They do this by keeping two opposing ideas in their minds at the same time: My beloved is here and also gone. This way of thinking keeps us from thinking for sure, you know, “You are either dead or alive.” Well, sometimes we just don’t know.
For a therapist to say, “Look, they’re dead, get over it” would be cruel. We do not know [whether they’re dead]. This is why grief therapy does not work with ambiguous loss. It requires dealing with the stress of not knowing and therefore how to deal with it. Your only option is to build resilience.
Even with death, there is no fence. You will remember it. And you’re going to keep them in your heart and your mind, and so a transformation takes place. Ties after a person’s death tend to last for most people. They remember the person, think of them, use their recipe, or wear their shirt.
How should we deal with ambiguous loss – especially as we continue to live with the pandemic?
We must increase our tolerance for ambiguity and our willingness to constantly need certainty.
We become sedentary and we feel comfortable in our own little circle of people who are like us, and there is so much more in the world. We have to reach out and get a little uncomfortable trying something new.
The virus will be with us forever. It will become an endemic virus, but it will not go away. The 1918 virus is still with us. There will therefore be no fence on the pandemic. Wouldn’t it be nice if some people could increase their tolerance for ambiguity and know that things are often not absolute in our lives? Often times things are more in the dark, and we have to get used to it.
You describe slavery, racist laws, and police violence in the United States as ambiguous loss to black people. What do you mean?
He was ignored. And because of that, it’s ambiguous. It’s a major generational loss that has just been swept under the rug. And it is huge. There are many, many different groups that we don’t pay attention to that have suffered ambiguous losses. And we don’t recognize them, then the pain is passed on from generation to generation.
Who do you hope to read this book, and what do you hope they get out of it?
It’s not a therapy book, but I hope it’s therapeutic. When there are so many people suffering, like after a disaster, you cannot rely on individual therapists; there is not enough for everyone. The minority of people will need psychotherapy or medical help. So I write for the majority [to] have information so that they can help themselves. It’s an amazing time, and I think any little information that comes out to help people cope with stress could be helpful.
You mentioned that children intuitively understand ambiguous loss. Why is that?
Children know that they are not totally responsible. So when things happen, they can understand ambiguity better than adults, who have gained more agency in their life. When we get older we want to be in charge, and we are not. If there is dementia in the family, for example, [children] maybe not so upset that grandpa doesn’t know who they are. Sometimes when you visit him he knows who you are, and sometimes he doesn’t. They can still crawl on [grandpa’s] knees and talk to him, while an adult child may have a bad time. They are interested in ambiguity, children are, if we do not spoil them. They want to investigate new things.