Resilience in the face of ambiguous loss

February 8, 2022

It is what it is.

Ugh…I can’t stand that phrase. Probably because it sounds too superficial to me. But as glib as it sounds, that expression does capture the shoulder-shrugging reality of the ambiguous losses we’re all facing these days. I’ve been thinking about the lack of resolution imposed upon us by the waves of pain and uncertainty of the past two years.  The work of Dr. Pauline Boss has given me new insight into ambiguous loss. It makes sense. If you haven’t read my first three posts on the topic you can do that here, here and here.

So…yeah…now what? What do we do with the frightening thought of no closure? Facing this much anxiety and loss without hope of resolution is terrifying. “I’m done” doesn’t begin to capture our frustration and desire to move on.

But we must. We must survive and find a way to thrive again. We will do that as we learn resilience. Dr. Boss suggests that “resilience is our best hope in the face of ambiguous loss.” I’m going to try to capture some of her insights on resilience from her book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous loss in a time of pandemic and change. You’ll see her thoughts in quotation marks below, along with some musings of my own.

What is resilience? “Resilience is the ability to be flexible in the face of pressure without breaking down.”

I’d suggest that there are three crucial factors necessary to develop resilience in the face of ambiguous loss. Actually, make that four. I’ll offer a fourth factor for people of faith.

  1. We must develop a tolerance for ambiguity.

Dr. Boss proposes that to get to the point of reduced demand for closure we need to embrace the “humility of knowing once again that I am not always in control”. She recommends we accept that “instead of neat endings, loss comes in complicated shades of gray.”

I appreciate her insights on the need for both/and thinking. “I am both stressed with a world weariness and also optimistic that things are slowly getting better.” The doom-scrolling has to be balanced with hope.

  1. We must find and cling to our people.

It is for times like these that community exists. No one is an island. We need people to carry us through the ambiguity. More than anything else, we need our people to listen to us and we need to listen to them. I have been moved recently by this thought from author and counselor Dr. David Augsburger. “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”

When facing the frustrating lack of closure, we at least must be drawn out, listened to and heard. We may grieve but we will feel loved and less insane.

  1. We need to “discover new ways of being.”

Dr. Boss includes this epigraph in her book. “When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Here are the necessary questions we all must deal with if we want to grow in resilience: “Can I evolve? Who am I now?” I would add…”Why am I now?” or…”What is my purpose now?”

On a personal note, that question “Can I evolve?” has been at the forefront of my own journey through ambiguity these past two years. It feels like scaffolding holding me up, giving me resilience, as I rework the meaning of my life.

This final factor I offer for people of faith. If you believe in God or a higher power, there’s no ignoring theology in times like these that lack resolution. I was a pastor for more than four decades so, of course, I have my own take on these issues, but here I will simply raise questions. As a person of faith, desiring resilience, you know you have to decide what you believe about these things.

  1. (For people of faith) We need to figure out where God fits in our ambiguous loss.

Is God in control of all things? Did God ordain everything? Did God know what would happen or just allow it to happen? Does everything have a reason? Where is God? Is God near? Will God intervene? Does God care?

As a person of faith, how you answer those questions would tell me a lot about your tolerance for ambiguity and the strength of your resilience. Don’t know what you believe? Again, find your people. Get with your people. Talk. Think. Listen. Pray.

And for all of us struggling, angry, wistful, grieving, over-it ones…I wish for you peace and I pray for you resilience.














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