In Japanese culture, wabi-sabi is a philosophy centered on finding beauty in imperfection and accepting the natural cycles of growth. This perspective ties into a Japanese art where broken objects are often repaired with gold or silver — embracing the flaws and imperfections to create a piece of art that’s more beautiful than it was to begin with.
As many of us are facing ambiguous losses and stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic, wabi-sabi can be used as a metaphor to teach us an important lesson: During the process of mending what’s broken, we can use this time as an opportunity to come out on the other side stronger and more beautiful than ever before.
While studying families of pilots missing in combat during Vietnam in the 1970s, Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to define a particular type of loss that can happen to a person when they don’t receive closure or clear understanding. Some examples of ambiguous loss are divorce, miscarriage, military deployments, or when a loved one develops an addiction, or a disease like dementia, or a chronic mental illness. Since there’s no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be, it can leave us endlessly searching for answers and complicate the grieving process or even leave it unresolved altogether.
Two Types of Ambiguous Loss During COVID-19
1. Leaving Without Goodbye
- Job Loss
- Working at home
- Restricted physical contact with loved ones
- Restricted travel
- Loved ones on the front line
2. Goodbye Without Leaving
- Family member emotionally unavailable (news obsession/anxiety)
- Loved ones isolated in quarantine
- Loved ones in nursing homes
- Loved ones on the front line
Ambiguous loss can often cause symptoms that look similar to mental illnesses, like sorrow and depression. However, mental illness isn’t the problem. Rather it is the loss and/or stressors that the person has experienced, making resiliency-building strategies the key to living well despite feeling stuck or that the end is uncertain.
Six Guidelines for Fostering Resilience and Coping With Ambiguous Loss
1. Create Moments of Meaning
Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.– Carl Jung
Suffering without meaning is unbearable. But if you can find some beauty or purpose for your life during the suffering, it makes it more doable.
Being kind and giving to others can make our lives feel more meaningful. It also helps to create a connection with one another. Studies have proven interdependence and relationships increase physical health, mental health, resiliency, and longevity. Find opportunities to serve others while practicing social distancing, like calling or texting to check in on your neighbors, writing thank you letters/signs for front line workers, or donating blood.
Rituals help bring organization and meaning to our lives. Creating new ones helps us grieve old ones connected to our previous identity. It is harder to let go of rituals of the past without creating new moments to love.
- What am I learning from this?
- How is my community coming together?
- How is my family coming together?
- What have I done to help?
2. Adjust to a New Normal
We all like to have certainty and control in our lives. Adjusting to a new environment means having less predictability and control. If you try to control too much, you’ll drive everyone around you crazy. If you don’t try, you will not be prepared to protect yourself and your family.
Finding the sweet-spot of control is the goal. It is easy to feel stuck, confused, and paralyzed when there is a season of change. Loss is real even if you are not receiving awareness or validation from others. In many situations, don’t expect awareness or validation. In order to grieve and move forward, assign words to your emotions, and recognize the loss.
- What have I lost through this season of change?
- What am I doing to explore options and get informed?
- What boundaries am I setting while getting this information?
- Am I struggling for closure? Acknowledge closure is a myth.
- Am I blaming others? How can I let go of blame and hold onto my power?
3. Accept Ambivalence
Ambivalence is having contradictory attitudes or feelings at the same time. You can feel hopeful and hopeless, grateful and frustrated, love and irritation. Resilience happens when you learn to hold onto both of these ideas at the same time. You can increase tolerance for emotional discomfort. Doing this helps you to move past paralyzed decision making.
- I want to go to work and I don’t want to go to work
- I love my spouse and I can’t be with my spouse right now
- I am excited to have my baby and I don’t want to deliver my baby
4. Find Connection With Others
Find a way to connect with your family and friends every day. Technology is so important right now. Try using online video chat software like Skype or FaceTime to see the faces of your family and friends. Brainstorm creative ways to talk with each other while practicing social distancing. Human connection is fundamental to our mental health. We are social creatures and not meant to be alone. Fight for new ways of connection.
- Am I trying to go through this alone? Am I turning towards family?
- Am I open to connecting in new ways? Who is helping me make decisions?
- Who is my support team?
- What strengths and weaknesses do they have? How am I keeping my “cup” full?
- Do I have healthy boundaries? Am I able to be authentic and vulnerable?
5. Reconstruct Your Identity
Use this time as an opportunity to rediscover your passion and let go of what’s not working for you in your life. Letting go is a big part of this and so is embracing what does work. Try journaling or talking to someone who supports you to discover you strengths and use them as a foundation for your new growth and development in life.
- Recognize new roles.
- Recognize strength and family resiliency.
- Identify personal strengths.
- Increase spiritual sense of self.
- Separate your identity from what is going on around you, who is around you.
- In times of crisis, you must never forget and you must forget.
- Be curious
- Stop discrimination, blaming others.
- Have compassion for yourself and others.
- Don’t isolate from others…you need community for a sense of self
- Don’t keep a role that isn’t working (ie: rescuer, organizer, enforcer, etc)
The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.– David Whyte
- Who am I? Does the way I spend my time reflect this?
- How have I changed in work, family, school, church?
- How have I adapted a new view of my sense of self?
- How have I shown up for myself and others?
6. Discover Hope
Hope brings us possibilities that life can change, we can change. We can adapt the attitude that “I don’t know what the future will look like, but I believe in myself and my community.” Switch from asking yourself “why” to “what am I going to do”.
Find humor and some time to be worry-free. Find something bigger than yourself, like God, nature, or the universe. We learn there is rebirth and can let go of trying to control life.
- What gifts do I have from going through this change?
- What have I learned about myself?
- What possibilities or opportunities can I imagine?
- What new lessons have I learned?
- How can I practice patience in this season of change?
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms. To choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way.– Viktor Frankl