• © Sheila Foster

Holidays, Holy Days, and Ambiguous Loss

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift. ~Mary Oliver (Thirst)

The Holy Days and holidays are upon us and I am aware that this is not an easy, joyous, or jolly time for many of us. The outer materialistic world promotes shopping sales and glee, while our inner world of sad memories, hurting hearts, and missing people we love and grieve, calls some of us to turn inward and quiet retreat.

Trusting our hearts and giving ourselves what we need is so important, rather than following the road of distraction, denial, and fake happy faces and masks.

Ambiguous losses of people we love in our lives are those that have no closure, no sense of completion. We are left entangled with our loved ones, helpless to do anything other than pray, and hanging in the Unknown without resolution. When

I read Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief by Pauline Boss, I learned that my life has been filled with many ambiguous losses of people I love. You may discover that you have some ambiguous losses in your own life. People are not our only ambiguous losses, but I am only going to address the loss of loved ones here.

After living and working with my own losses of people I love without any closure for a lifetime, I now see and feel ambiguous loss as a type of unnamed trauma that goes on and on indefinitely. I have been able to find meaning and spiritual gifts in my losses when I stepped through the portal of the Unknown and recognized the presence of Divine Arrangement and the spiritual significance of every one of these losses, even the most challenging. The grief of these losses does not go away, but it can eventually ease up and gifts can come forth.

When we inquire, we may find that we have experienced more ambiguous losses than we realized, and we can see where the flow of our life force may have been paralyzed or diminished because of the dreadful feeling of incompletion. It can be difficult to go forward in our own lives, as our own energy is entangled in varying ways with each person we are missing. Awareness of these losses as ambiguous begins a shift of consciousness. Once we know what our ambiguous losses are, and we come to see how they shape us and our lives, some of the pain and grief can ease and we begin to see and work with them as spiritual Teachers. This path has been a path of resilience for me and for many of my students with ambiguous losses.

Pauline Boss named two types of ambiguous loss in her book:

Physical Presence and Psychological Loss

The first involves the loss of one or more loved ones who are physically alive but there is some condition that makes them unavailable emotionally, mentally, and unable to make relational contact. They are physically there, but not there as they used to be with mind and body intact. These ambiguous losses include conditions such as dementia, mental illness, coma, PTSD, addictions, workaholism, chronic pain, brain injuries, or other traumas to body, mind, and soul. While our loved one’s physical body is still present, the person we knew is gone and not capable of relationship with us anymore.

Spouses, children, family, and friends of people with these conditions usually experience some combination of increased stress, fear, phases of hope and hopelessness, despair, anger, depression, as well as deep heartbreak and grief, as they witness their loved one disappear. Their loss may be gradual over the course of years, or a sudden, unexpected trauma, like a stroke or terribly disabling accident, that starts the process. It can be emotionally devastating, frightening, as well as exhausting to witness, experience, and live with people we love as they go through these radical changes of personality, mental and physical functioning, and sometimes suffering. Partners and family also may feel abandoned, lost, trapped, suffer in silence, and feel guilty if they leave the afflicted person to get some time off duty. Some may feel that they have to do all or most of the care giving themselves and become exhausted to the point where their health is affected. The caregivers need care and support themselves, and for some people, that does not happen.

Sometimes death, though painful, comes as a relief to a family when the loved one finally transitions. The family may feel relief that their loved-one’s suffering is over. They can say goodbye, have a funeral, perhaps share stories of the one who passed, comfort each other. What usually follows is the time it takes their family and caregivers to recover and reclaim their own lives and, in time, step into a new, different life.

Physical Absence and Psychological Presence

The other type is the loss of beloved people in our lives that leave intentionally or disappear somehow from family and friends, often without known reasons. These losses can include people in the midst of war, terrorism, abduction, suicide, overdose deaths, immigration, natural disasters, adoption, divorce, sending a child to relatives. We hear about stolen babies and children or young adults who just disappear. These days there are countless missing children, as well as adults, who are never found.

The pain of this kind of ambiguous loss is that we feel no closure, nothing feels final or complete. We want answers and there are none. There is no death certificate, no ceremony, no acknowledgment of the ongoing pain of our loss, and sometimes no certainty that our loved one will ever return, or that our shared life will ever be good or happy, or that we will even survive the trauma. Life goes on for everyone else, and yet the family and close friends of the one who is missing are feeling terrible pain and may feel like they cannot share it or show it to others.

Often in these situations there is no understanding of the reasons for the disappearance, no certainty that this person will ever return, or knowledge of where they went or where they are, or if they will ever return to us. Often there is little or no contact with them, and yet we feel their psychological presence is alive and burning in our hearts. Holidays, birthdays, and every day can feel terrible.

Also, our beloveds can appear to us in dreamtime and visionary experiences, or in an unexpected moment when we catch a glimpse of someone on the street or in the grocery store who looks like our person. Our hearts break open again and again unless we shut down our feelings or find a healthy way to deal with the pain and grief. We are devastated and often pull into ourselves, shutting out more and more of the outer world, including friends and other family members, that do not understand or recognize the pain that goes on unmitigated for years, or forever, if our person doesn’t return.

Having experienced huge ambiguous losses myself a number of times my since birth and as an adult, I can tell you that for me, and others I know, it takes an enormous amount of energy, faith in a power greater than we are, and a deep and committed spiritual practice to keep on keeping on. Holidays and birthdays seem to magnify old memories and feelings of grief. Happy memories bring tears. We may be fearful if we don’t know if our person is alright or alive. Every day, there is a sighting of something or someone that is a reminder. Some of my lost people are no longer living and that is a relief, and some still alive but gone. It has been a strange and painful karmic path to walk, but as I have, I have learned and been gifted with an ability to recognize this type of loss in the lives of others and be able to lend some support that I would not have known how to do if I had not been walking this path myself. Grace is always available to those who are on this path of ambiguous losses. We eventually can learn how to ask, day by day, sometimes moment to moment, during the hardest times. My go-to for asking is the Divine Mother.

Psychotherapy with a therapist who understands ambiguous loss is really helpful. We also need at least one or two compassionate, supportive friends who understand our situation and loves us through the hard parts. When I read Pauline Boss’s book, I was so relieved to have a name, a context for the grief I had carried since birth. At age three, my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, died. I was cuddled up in bed with her when it happened. A few months after that, my mother sent me to live with relatives, and I was taken out the door by my uncle, screaming and kicking. I saw my mother’s face, looked in her eyes, as she closed the door. Life as I knew it was over. After that, I saw my mother regularly, and my teenage sister on holidays or in summer. the bond I had with each of them was broken after my grandmother’s death. I barely saw my sister (twelve years older than I) until she had her first child when I was ten. She was so devastated when I was sent away and had to hold it in. It hurt her too much to be with me until I was about ten when school was on vacation and I began visiting her for a week or two after she had her first child. She didn’t get to cry and grieve the loss of me, as we lived in a family where no one shared feelings. It was no accident that she took on babysitting a little neighbor girl who was three years old with dark hair like me when her mom went back to work. We all stuffed our pain down in my family. My sister paid the price with her body and one illness after another until she died. I look back now and can hear the wailing of women in the silence of the family after I was sent away.

It was many years before I knew why I was sent away and what caused my sister to disappear. I carried the trauma of abandonment, first as a newborn, when my biological father held me shortly after I was born, and then left forever. I didn’t know this until I was in my early 30’s. A number of years later, when I went looking for him, I had a truly surprising mystical experience in my car as I was driving to my Jungian therapist, who was a man 30 years older than I. Thinking about what I wanted to work on, I suddenly felt myself as a newborn infant and my father was holding me, looking into my tiny face. I felt his intense energy and “father love” shoot like a star into my body. Then the experience faded, and I was totally amazed. I understood that this was his fatherly love transmission and his goodbye. In my thirties, I looked for him but never found him. The day my mother confirmed that the pedophile that was not my biological father, I went to the college my real father graduated from and I got a photo of him. They could not tell me where he was and, years later, I hired a detective, to no avail. I learned from his college that he died during the years that I was looking for him. My grief for the loss of him came when I could not find him, and he never looked for me. That still remains a mystery.

Resilience, and Inner Work

Ongoing ambiguity is highly stressful and potentially debilitating. Resilience is needed but often declines over time if the loss is not addressed. The grief process can then become frozen and, at the same time, always present may show up as a ghost in the family field that continues to repeat the patterns of not acknowledging family losses.

In my own experience, the ambiguous losses I experienced in childhood were inherited from previous generations and became a very dark shadow in my sad, young life. In first grade, age six, the ambiguous losses I suffered so young and didn’t understand became a horrible ghost attached to me that only I could see and feel. Unconsciously, I took it on as shame that ‘something is very wrong with me’. I was guided in my late 20’s to enter psychotherapy and begin looking at my pain and family experiences, feeling the enormous amount of pain I had stuffed down over the years. With the help of a really good therapist that I came to trust, the dam in my heart broke and the waters of birth into new life flowed through as my copious tears and profound grief and mourning began.

I had held it like a ragged old teddy bear in secret as a child, only laying my tears at the feet of Mother Mary when I prayed to Her at night in my bed. I prayed mostly for Her to send me back to my mother and sister, but that did not happen. I became angry with Her and with my mother, and I wanted to be dead. I wanted to punish them all by dying. When I started psychotherapy at age 28, I opened a huge, oozing wound in my heart and soul that pervaded my life and the family field until I was able to meet it fully. Years later I discovered that I was carrying this wound of ambiguous losses for the generations before me because they never could grieve by addressing their losses or weeping their tears. My mother’s mom died when my mother was seven years old. Her father abandoned her and her two older sisters by sending them to relatives. The pattern continued with me and, and sad to say, to some degree, with my children when my husband and I separated. When heartbreak in a family lineage is never addressed, it keeps flowing down through the generations. Apparently, my soul agreement with my lineage was to carry and face the ghosts there in my family field, and eventually they came into the light.

Ambiguous losses can impair the functioning of many individuals, and whole families may be paralyzed to varying degrees. As in my case, no one spoke to me about being sent away until I was old enough to inquire and, initially, I wasn’t told the truth. Sometimes, instead of banding together in support, family members begin to attack and blame each other. Some don’t speak about the missing person and some never face or embrace their grief and other feelings. Those who do their inner work and get support with what is happening fare better. In many families with these kinds of losses, members grieve in solitude or cut off their grief and get very busy or break away. Marriages and families can come apart because this kind of ambiguous loss takes up a lot of room in the family field if it is not processed by all affected. The ongoing stress is weighty. Holding grief inside can cause health and/or psychological issues to arise. I think the worst thing is what happened with my family: lack or denial of acknowledgment that something terrible and painful has happened and is continuing with no end in sight, no rituals or communal grieving.

Ambiguous losses can initially cause us to put life on hold in a state of hope, although hope is not the end point. In the beginning of an ambiguous loss we are in shock, we don’t know what really happened when a loved one disappears, or how it’s going to turn out. We may live in hope while we are in denial for a while, as hope holds us together until we are ready to take in the truth of what has occurred and the enormity of its impact upon us and others. Hope gives us a resting place for a while and then, when we understand what is really happening, we may let go of hope and fall into despair and deep grief. Sometimes people turn to addictions and/or have health problems. We may fall to our knees feeling utterly hopeless for a while. If we have a spiritual practice, psychological help, and some kind of ongoing support, we eventually get up an begin to walk forward, not necessarily knowing where to go.

When someone we love disappears and we don’t fully understand what happened or why, or how this could happen to us, we don’t know what to do so we either collapse or we try everything we can think of. I can tell you that with one of my deepest ambiguous losses I spent the first year or so crying, angry, enraged, blaming self and others, crazed, depressed, unable to eat, sleep, and at times, barely able to work. I was constantly tortured by my terrified thinking mind, wondering what to do, looking for answers and a way to change it, hoping for a miracle and our beloved one’s return. I sought out people I thought could help me change the situation, friends, different therapists, psychics, and even an exorcist. Nothing could change what happened.

At a certain point I had to stop talking about it except to a few friends that really understood. Most people didn’t get it or get me as they responded with some banal statement or advice they thought was comforting and hopeful. I knew in my bones this was not a time to be hopeful. My prayers were not effective, or so it seemed. I felt devastated that Holy Mother was not listening to me and thought that She had abandoned my family. Finally, despair and emotional exhaustion took me out of hope and desperation, and I collapsed into the realization that I could not live in this panic mode and denial of ‘what is’ anymore.

I had to face the fact that I was helpless to change what is. No one could change it or only one person could change it and she was gone. Being helpless was extremely difficult. Having to completely release what I wanted to happen took me to the edge of the cliff and, eventually, I came to understand that I was praying for the wrong thing. It was not right for me to try to control the situation. This was a great lesson. I could not change the situation. I could not even KNOW what the situation was or why it was, or if it would ever change or end. I still don’t know.

I started to simply pray for help to deal with the situation without knowing what kind of help was needed or who needed it. In answer to that prayer, I woke up one day with the message that I could soothe my suffering by looking at the stories my mind was telling me about what happened and what I should do next, moment to moment. Constantly telling myself these stories was tearing me apart, taking me out of my life. I began to witness my thinking and worked at not going into any more stories like that. I had to experience my helplessness and ask the Divine Mother to show me the way. This moment to moment surrender lifted a lot of suffering and I began to function so much better.

Gradually, I started sleeping and eating better and participating in life again. I then took on the spiritual task of being with what is, as it is, whatever it is. I cannot say how important and central to feeling peaceful this is. I had to work at it to learn how to do it, and you can, too. This was really hard and confusing at first, but I came to learn that being with what is as it is, and directly experiencing what is with all of the pain, no matter how awful it feels, expedites the way through and beyond suffering. We still feel pain and grief, but it is not the same as the experience of added suffering by the torment that our minds can inflict. In time, I came to understand that ‘what is’ can only be what it is, at the time it is, and there is only NOW.

Could it change? Maybe, eventually, or maybe not. It has been over 22 years now. In meeting what is as it is, we are in alignment with the truth, the fact of it as it is. When this occurs, it frees us from our resistance or denial, and allows for peace. We don’t have to like what is, but we can acknowledge that what is, is present and experience it directly. If it is meant to change, it will. Everything is Divinely Arranged, and I didn’t know that in the beginning of this heart-breaking path.

I feel it as a spiritual path now, I still grieve, and it has opened my heart so very wide that I also can enjoy my life, Love others and myself more than ever, and live a grateful life in the “Not Knowing”. A broken-open heart can Love a lot of people and share that Love with others, especially broken-open people and those ready and willing to break open. I don’t know what can happen or not. I have made friends with the Great Unknown. I certainly cannot control anything, and do not try anymore. I continue to pray, ask the Holy Mother in one of Her forms or another, to help. I don’t know what kind of help is needed for myself or anyone else. I am currently doing stints of nine consecutive days of spiritual practice and prayer, and I only ask for help without defining what kind of help. The Divine Mother knows, not I. For the last six months or so, I have been asking Mother Mary, Undoer of Knots for help. “Ma, please undo the knots for me regarding this situation” – whatever that may be at the time. I cannot know what is needed, I cannot know what should happen or not. I leave it up to Her. Things happen. Life goes on according to Divine Arrangement. I am at peace with this.

Naming Our Ambiguous Losses

We all have experienced ambiguous losses in our lives and there is healing and resilience in naming them. Simply living a human life in a body is full of ambiguous losses. When we inquire, we find we have experienced more ambiguous losses than we realized and can see where the flow of life force in us may have been paralyzed or at least diminished if we have not acknowledged them. Awareness of these losses as ambiguous begins a shift of consciousness and offers a change of heart.

Naming and honoring ambiguous losses create a container and make it possible to come into a new and different relationship with the losses, as well as new spiritual potential. The loss remains, the grief continues to be accessible and will probably rise up at times, both expected and unexpected, and yet it is possible to come into a new relationship with it in such a way that we can still be happy, still have a good life, still create and Love even more than ever before. Keeping our hearts open to Love is essential. We are Love and there’s lots to share if we are willing. Here are some sacred questions to assist you in seeing what some of your ambiguous losses might be:

• Is there someone in your life who is physically present, but not really themselves in some ways? Does it seem that they are there, but not there? • Have you somehow lost, and are you missing and grieving a beloved child, family member, or friend who has physically disappeared from your life for reasons known or unknown, and yet you still feel that their psychological/soul presence remains with you – that they are not there, yet intensely there? • Have you immigrated to this country leaving family and friends behind, not knowing when or if you will see those beloveds or your homeland again? • Do you dread the holidays, certain birthdays or anniversaries, and are you relieved when they are over? • Have you somehow lost your capacity to live fully, work, and enjoy life due to physical or mental health issues, aging, accident, or trauma? • Are you feeling the many losses associated with aging such as more health issues, losing a partner or friend, being unable to dance or paint or walk as well as you could last year? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these you are acknowledging and naming your experiences of ambiguous losses. This naming creates a container for the losses, and I see that it makes a difference to others when they name and feel a container for their own ambiguous losses. I have learned how to negotiate the territory of ambiguous loss and live without closure one day at a time and I have taught others to do so, too. Ambiguous losses have been my Teacher, my Sat Guru, in my healing and awakening process. I keep meeting what is as it is, and you can learn to do this. You could also set up an altar, create a piece of art, have a remembrance ceremony, or whatever way comes to you to give presence and acknowledgment to these precious losses. They don’t have to be hidden.

I have come to see and feel Divine Arrangement is ever-present, even in our deepest losses. Grace continues to provide us with enough courage, resilience, and opportunities to keep working with these losses and harvesting the jewels among the shards if we are willing to turn toward the grief. We have the spiritual help to come into new relationship with our ambiguous losses and give them a visible place in our hearts and lives.

The poet, Rumi, tells us that the ‘stretcher from Grace’ is always standing by. We can ask for this level of assistance in meeting what is as it is and listening for guidance. Where you may feel a deep hole or emptiness in your heart because of your ambiguous loss, I can tell you that the emptiness isn’t truly empty—there is Divine Presence and Divine Arrangement within it, awaiting your attention. My work with the deepest ambiguous losses continuously reveals this to me and to others. I have found that ambiguous losses offer us a path into the Heart and a portal to Grace.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. ~ T.S.Eliot East Coker, The Four Quartets

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