Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ambiguous Loss

Over the last several weeks I have been reading  Pauline Goss’ book *Ambiguous Loss.  Its subtitle is “Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief.  She affirms that of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate.  An old English nursery rhyme encapsulates the distressing feeling of uncertainty:

As I was walking up the stair. 
I met a man who was not there.
He was not there again today,
Oh, how I wish he’d go away. 

I have thought much about the kinds of loss that permeate the massive population movements as so many individuals and families are uprooted from their homes because of war and violence that make their lives untenable. I have thought much about the communities who either welcome them and try to make them feel secure and at home  and about the communities who say “No” we cannot make a space for you.  I have tried to imagine what it would be like to pack only what I could carry in a blanket or a suitcase and run for my life in the middle of the night -leaving behind all that is familiar - if not predictable and safe.  No matter where I let my imagination wander, there is a universal and profound sense of loss. 

In an instant, life as it was disappears when bombs and mortar fire level a home and a family, whether still intact or permanently broken, loses everything.  The grief that pervades life in refugee camps is ambiguous.  Soon it may be possible to return home.  Soon life may be normal again.  Soon a missing family member may arrive on the doorstep.  But in the waiting, grieving goes on and on and on and there is no “normal” resolution.  Everything just sort of hangs in abeyance.  

Even for those who reach a safe harbor, who are welcomed in a strange land, who put down roots in a new culture, who begin to rebuild successful lives  - - even under the best of circumstances, the unresolved losses of home, family, community, culture, the loss of a certain degree of sameness in everyday life,  the loss of a sense of place and belonging is pervasive and the hope for some kind of “return” stays in the spirit.   The losses are devastating because so many losses remain “unclear and indeterminate.”

I listened this morning to a piece on NPR  about one church’s efforts to resettle one extravagantly vetted Syrian refugee family.  Church members talked about the issues involved - the costs in time and energy and labor and support - to help just one family to make the transition to life in this country.  They spoke of the labor of love required. I wondered how the welcoming community acknowledges the depth of the loss that even one refugee family encounters.  I wondered how one keeps hope alive and lives into the future when the losses are so ambiguous at times - so open-ended and without resolution.

So - I thought about a day of mourning in solidarity with all who live and cope with the  “unclear and indeterminate” losses that come not only through  immigration, but also through things like the death of a marriage through divorce; the re-shaping of family relationships when one member is estranged;  the loss of a clear and shining future to the complexity of climate change; the loss of tribal lands to invading forces; the loss of a loved one missing in action.

We humans swim in a sea of  unacknowledged loss and grief.  Perhaps if we could own and recognize it more readily we could be gentler with one another.  Perhaps we could learn to say to one another “We have lost so much.  Come let us sit together and mourn  - and, then, perhaps, find a way forward together.”

 Ambiguous Loss - Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief by Pauline Boss, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1999.  P.

Vicky Hanjian

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