The first half of this year brought the too-familiar experience of loss and grief back into my life. It feels as though I’ve been ordering sympathy flowers online for at least once a month.
In a short six months, I’ve lost a next-door boyhood pal, the mother of a lifelong friend, a mentor who encouraged me in my teen years to become a first-generation college student, and the father of a young friend for To whom I feel a sense of fatherly pride, and one of my heroes, a key figure in the early post-Stonewall LGBT rights movement.
As has been the case with most of my life’s losses, this year’s losses have occurred against the backdrop of a global pandemic. This time it’s COVID-19. In my twenties and thirties, it was HIV-AIDS.
Psychologist Pauline Boss, in her 2021 book, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Changeaddresses the massive losses people across the world have experienced since the world-changing early days of COVID-19 in early 2020.
The sun shines brightly above the tree canopy the way resilience and wisdom are the lights we learn to see through our grief.
Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 1970s as a way to describe the difficult experience of losing loved ones in circumstances that don’t allow for a proper goodbye—such as when a family member goes missing or is unaccounted for after a disaster .
The heartbreaking scenarios repeated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—families restricted from being physically present as a loved one died—stirred up a lot of ambiguous loss.
Boss says there will be no closure after all the losses in the COVID-19 pandemic. She argues that closure from grieving a loved one is a myth at any time. “You’ll never be completely over the loss of someone you have loved,” she says. She points out that resilience—not closure—provides us with new hope and the strength to live life in a new way.
Boss describes resilience as the “ability to withstand the pain of loss and the anxiety of ambiguity, get up again after we’ve been knocked down, and grow stronger from the suffering.”
This is ancient wisdom. The playwright Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BC), considered the father of tragedy, wrote in Agamemnon about “pathei mathos,” the view that while humans are fated to suffer, Zeus gave us the gift of being able to learn from our suffering. The Greek idea was that suffering is the only pathway to wisdom, and we don’t become wise by choice but as the result of being knocked about by life.
Our best option for finding meaning after loss, says Boss, “is to cope through some kind of action—seeking justice, working for a cause, or demonstrating to right the wrong.”
In my case, losing two friends early in the HIV-AIDS pandemic while I was in journalism school made me want to take action, not merely feel sad. I realized the most important and helpful action I could take was to apply my skills as a journalist to bear witness in my writing to the terrible losses my community suffered and the amazing courage and heroism so many displayed. I transformed the sorrow of losing my friends into newspaper and magazine stories about the tremendous outpouring of volunteerism, funds raised, increased visibility of gay people in the culture, and the greater sense of solidarity and political cout within the community.
Boss says we need to increase our tolerance for ambiguity and learn to live with “both/and” thinking. This way of thinking lets us understand that the pandemic was “both a terrible time and a time of growth; it was both a time of loss and a time of gaining new insight.” Even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over—and even when HIV is finally cured, and the 41-year-long HIV-AIDS pandemic is over—“we will not have closure,” Boss says. “Loss has left its mark on us and changed the way we think and live.”
Pathei mathos, in suffering, we learn. Of course, no one ever goes looking for suffering. It inevitably finds us, whoever we are. Sorrow returns at times, says Boss, especially on holidays and other special occasions. It can come spilling from our eyes when something reminds us of the person we lost. “But for all of us,” Boss says, “choosing to accept the paradox of absence and presence is less painful than trying to find closure.” She says our task is to “let go of the person we lost but keep them present in our heart and mind.”
We do that by holding onto our memories of the lost person, finding comfort in honoring and remembering them—even as we liberate ourselves by letting them go and moving forward with our life without them.
I display in my home office framed photos of people who have played important roles in my life but who are no longer alive. Each one captures a special moment shared with them and evokes memories of our times together. I make a point of regularly visiting and placing flowers on the graves of my dearly departed family members—including my dad, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I share thoughts and photos on my Facebook page of them and mark birthdays and death days. I talk and share stories about them.
And I get on with my life. “You can be knocked down and eventually get up again to have a good life,” says Boss, “but you’ll never be completely over the loss of someone you have loved.”
Closure is a myth, as Boss says. We don’t ever “get over” a loss. We simply find a way to tuck it away into a safe place in our hearts and mind, allowing us to get on with life. That’s resilience.