Ambiguity Times Three: Coping With Loss, Grief, and Relief

We have been coping with the ambiguity of COVID-19, the resulting restrictions, quarantine measures, and social distancing. Healthcare workers, essential workers, and all of those involved in the service of caring for others have coped with and continued through difficulties and challenges.  Older adults in long-term care, their families, and their care partners have also really borne the brunt of this unprecedented time.  They have lived with ambiguity on more levels than should be possible.

Ambiguous Loss

First, residents have lived with social isolation, changing routines, and lack of interactions with those they love. The residents and their care partners have been coping with ambiguous loss. Everything is not the same, but it might look the same. There is loss, but how is it defined? It can be hard to understand.  Residents are still living, care partners are still providing care, but in a much more regulated way. Care partners continue supporting those residents with dementia who likely have the most difficulty understanding the losses they have endured. It is not a ‘typical’ loss, but a loss nonetheless.

Ambiguous Grief

Second, there is ambiguous grief following the losses. Mourning the loss of time with loved ones. Grieving the loss of activities and routines. Care partners having to sacrifice time with family. Essential workers have had to work overtime, and then self-isolate to protect their family. All of these experiences cause grief that might feel ambiguous. Grief is usually associated with death, so it might seem unnatural to grieve. However, it is a valid grief.

Ambiguous Relief

Third, we are now at a time where some states are reopening their long-term care facilities. Residents are now, in some states, able to experience more freedom. One of my friends who lives in a long-term care community was finally able to get a haircut after more than six months. Needless to say, he was relieved. But, for the most part, he is still confined to his surroundings. The activities he enjoys would put him and others at risk. He also noted that people have moved out of his community, and some have died. There is ambiguous relief in being able to do normal things, like getting a haircut. That relief is tinged with sadness over the changes that have come.

What Now?

Ambiguity is hard to live with, but we have managed. Some  of us have had it harder, and others have dealt with it longer.  We need to honor the losses  and grief of others, as well as our own, even when or if we do not understand any of it. We should give ourselves permission to acknowledge loss and grief, and take relief as it comes.

Let us continue to support and encourage each other. We need to keep going and carry on, washing our hands, wearing our face coverings, and continue to manage our lives in these ambiguous times.

Kathy Dreyer, Ph.D., is an Advisor at AGE-u-cate® Training Institute, which develops and delivers innovative research-based aging and dementia training programs such as Dementia Live® and Compassionate Touch®, for professional and family caregivers;