The coronavirus pandemic has caused many of us ambiguous losses, a term coined by Pauline Boss in her book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved GriefThe term refers to the loss of a person different from “ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be.” 

Two types of ambiguous loss exist: Type One is “physical absence with psychological presence.” Kidnapping is a catastrophic example, while more common examples include divorce or immigration. Type Two is “psychological absence with physical presence” that occurs via Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

Edge for Scholars talked with Reverend Lorilee Everleth, a chaplain at Vanderbilt, and she noted that coronavirus has caused many Type One losses. People outside out immediate family have been physically absent; important traditions have been lost or moved to online spaces without physical presence. However, we still feel their psychological presence. We attend Zoom meetings and hear people’s voices; we continue to receive emails from colleagues. These losses count as ambiguous because, as Everleth says, “we don’t know how long this is going to last, we don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s over, we don’t know if we can go forward with the things we’ve planned or if we have to put those things on hold.” Dealing with effects of ambiguous loss is an “extra tension” in our current climate and we would do well to pay it attention. 

Rev. Everleth confirmed the importance of having this conversation in our workspaces, because “adversity can bring people together, and it can reinforce your team.” How we make meaning of this time and learn to aid each other as we settle into the disruption of COVID is up to us. It may strengthen our teams. One method of dealing with ambiguous loss is to regain mastery of oneself, such as via The Empowerment Dynamic (TED*), a term coined by David Emerald Womeldorff. It stands as an alternative to The Drama Triangle, an idea described first by Dr. Stephen Karpman (Power of TED*). Everleth states the worldwide pandemic has made us feel like “we’re the victims, COVID is the persecutor, and where’s our rescuer? [Victim, persecutor, and rescuer are the three points of the Drama Triangle.] “We can look for that, but the empowerment model says, ‘I don’t have to be a victim.’” In the Empowerment Dynamic, the rescuer turns into a coach. Everleth says, “Coaching is going to come through that human connection. We’re going to need to help each other and talk through things with each other.”

Looking through the lens of ambiguous loss in our workplaces allows us to manage our expectations and prioritize our tasks. According to Everleth, ambiguous grief drains energy needed to function. In order for our work to continue, we must understand our energy level may not be the same. If you’re working the double shift at the hospital or still working 10-hour days in your home office, let yourself off the hook for a house chore that you usually stay on top of. In order to continue working sustainably, we must prioritize our tasks in a different way than before. 

While the pandemic may seem overwhelming, Everleth says there are simple ways we can show kindness and grace to our work colleagues. As a chaplain working in the hospital, she asks the question, “How can I convey what’s going on behind my mask with words or with my eyes?” Words are important to people, and recognizing actions that make us feel comfortable or glad to be at work is an important act. If you have a colleague who always makes the best of a hard situation, tell them. If you’re back in the office, leave a note on your coworker’s door or desk to let them know you appreciate them. If we can be explicitly grateful towards our colleagues, we can continue without losing motivation.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused tremendous disruption and widespread ambiguous grief, Everleth says that this moment also allows us to “pause and lay down our plans” and see how we might make positive changes in our lives to become “better citizens of the human race.” The pandemic may have shattered our plans, but has given us an opportunity to connect with ourselves and our colleagues in intentional ways that allow us to encourage and empower each other. 

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