How to Grieve Ambiguous Loss

I have never lived in a more anxious time than now. A week away from the American presidential election, with a global pandemic still devastating the world, and clear signs of environmental and social breakdown, most of us are living in fear. I am a deeply concerned citizen and civil servant. Yet, I normally never speak up about politics, in part due to privilege and in part due to what felt like futility. The discourse never seems to get at the root of America's problem: America’s understanding of success is based on a fundamentally false narrative about what is fair and right for humanity. If you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone: here’s how to grieve ambiguous loss and why it is important.

America’s Narrative Is Collapsing

That narrative is finally collapsing. As a psychotherapist in private practice, and as a friend, colleague, sister, daughter, and spiritual being, I am seeing just about everyone struggling to cope in healthy ways.


This inspired me to share these words: in order to build a new, healthier narrative, first, we have to grieve. Only once we've grieved the loss of the old world order can we take adaptive action to build a new one.


We are in the midst of a paradigm shift causing tremendous upheaval, a changing of the guard. This is a necessary shift, as our current leader’s experience of the world is radically different from those they hope to lead. A new generation of leaders is taking up power as the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) has it’s last hoorah. Born into unprecedented prosperity, the Boomer generation were understandably spoiled by their traumatized post-world war parents. Good intentions aside, this mass produced a “self-focused” generation who were too privileged to have to make any sacrifices, and who eventually destroyed the sense of social solidarity in our society. Younger generations don’t balk at socialist philosophy and sustainability over profitability, among other things. As the “old guard” moves aside for the new, we all need to make way for Change with a capital “C.” First, grief is necessary.

Fear Trumps Nostalgia: Grief Is the Balm

With change comes fear, even for those who feel no nostalgia for “the happy days.” It is natural to fear the unknown, even if we believe it will be for the better. To address this anxiety, we must first grieve. We cannot forge ahead without first reconciling loss. Grief is our natural biological response to loss. It is the balm or salve to soothe the aches and pains of this time of transition. Without it, we become inhibited by pain and continue to suffer the consequences.

Our nervous system’s response to a threat is fight, flight, or freeze. However, once the threat has been rectified, we must make sure our body knows this and can soften and re-orient. This is what grief facilitates.


Grief is an expelling of the tension caused by the resistance to loss (fight, flight, freeze) hence the tears that come with it. If we don’t grieve, we become stuck in anger (fight), perpetual avoidance (flight), or are immobilized (freeze.)


Younger people are suffering from the consequences of previous generations' greed and destruction. The earth has a finite amount of natural resources. Trickle-down economics does not create more prosperity for all. Letting corporations rule the markets (and the government) with next to no taxation while keeping costs low at the expense of wages, worker safety, and environmental safety does not increase everyone’s slice of the pie. Instead, it has created bigger pieces for fewer people, causes countless harm to innocent people, and birthed leaders like Donald Trump.

Revelation: The American Dream Is a False Promise

Thanks to technology, the shift in attitudes away from free-market capitalism and toward democratic socialism has been rapid, taking only one and a half generations. What we are seeing now is the revelation of the false promise of the American Dream narrative.

Donald Trump is a product of what previous generations thought would lead them to prosperity and ultimately happiness. It is dangerous (and false) to see him as an anomaly who somehow managed to bully his way to the top. In many ways, based on the superficiality of the American Dream, he is the most “successful” American— the poster child for Reagan economics—he even stole his tag line: “Make America Great Again.”

Meanwhile, the concept of socialism still gets tossed around like a four-letter word by Americans of a certain age, the result of a Cold War narrative that McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and Reagan pumped into Americans as they came of age. This ironically fed a populist shift into a corporate oligarchy with increasing wealth disparity and disdain for social solidarity. Leftist dictatorships were easily sensationalized in the minds of many Americans, while examples of functioning democratic socialism were rarely shown. Universal healthcare continues to be mocked even as the pandemic proves how desperately we need it. The well-being of women varies greatly across the US: the maternal mortality rate for Black women in Louisiana is higher than it is in Iraq.

With educated and engaged citizens, democratic socialism can function as it is intended: to support the good of the community as a whole by entitling its members to ownership and agency. It worked for white Americans during the New Deal and can work more inclusively now.

Why Millennials Advocate For Democratic Socialism

The good news is that younger people don't have the same hang-ups as their elders. As a therapist who works predominantly with millennials, I have had an intimate look at their psychology. Millennials have different values because their adult lives have been marked by debt, recessions, and the gig economy. They can't afford the same mistake previous generations made of propping up unchecked capitalism while tearing down the social welfare state. They’ve grown up facing the impact of the American Lie and have a visceral awareness of the costs of corporate greed, misuse of power, and dwindling social welfare state.


Millennials are living the reality of insurmountable debt, joblessness, fascism, environmental collapse, and the violent backlash of classism, as fewer people have more.


At the same time, millennials are the first generation to grow up with digital technology. Their consciousness has been privileged and shaped by open-source internet, and forged by unprecedented access and communication. Finger-tip access to scientific information and statistics provides proof of the negative impacts of consumerism, human and ecological exploitation, and a legacy of discriminatory practice. Millennial' fondness for democratic socialism is the result of that technology, as well as their experience of massive corporate bailouts due to corruption and criminal practice in our banking system, forever wars, dying oceans, devastating fires, floods, droughts, the exposure of rampant abuse and sexism through the #Metoo movement, and the strong remaining presence of white supremacy.

It’s Undeniable. We Need Change

Our system has been failing for a long time, but now the evidence is undeniable— at least to the portion of the population that has not been coddled and grown indifferent. We're witnessing the systemic failure of key government institutions under geriatric leadership. However, as everything is breaking down around us, we are in a particularly powerful moment: a changing of the guard. As older generations finally retire and pass on, a younger generation will take power. We have a tremendous opportunity in our midst— and I do not just mean through the power to vote in the 2020 election.

Why We Need to Grieve Ambiguous Loss

Now is our time to grieve, both personally and collectively. So much loss is ambiguous and can be hard to pinpoint when we're not immediately impacted. This is true whether we're talking about the trauma of systemic racism or environmental disaster.


The challenge with grieving ambiguous loss is that it takes deliberate, conscious effort.


Typically, we do not grieve until we come face-to-face with the loss itself. It often takes a funeral for people to accept that someone is gone, a ritual that is currently being denied people due to coronavirus.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say “it hasn’t hit me yet,” after losing someone or something significant. With ambiguous loss, that “hit” will never come. That's why we must actively pursue our experience of loss, and work to connect with the grief we feel around it. If we bypass this process and skip to the next step of envisioning our future without what we have lost, then we will keep being brought back via our unrelenting anger, avoidance, or immobilization (depression.) Loss eventually catches up with us. Our anxiety and depression are a calling to grieve.


How I Reckon With Ambiguous Loss

As a 41-year-old cisgender, white, upper-class, able-bodied woman, I work to stay connected with loss. My privilege does a great job of keeping me insulated from direct loss—and intellectual about ambiguous loss. As a Buddhist, I train in the practice of cultivating compassion both for myself and others. In my tradition, we have a meditation practice where we breathe into our hearts the suffering of others, and through the inherent courage of our hearts, we breathe out relief. This simple practice allows me to focus on the pain of others around me and to experience more intimately their losses. It brings me to a felt experience of loss. My heart feels heavy, and I often get breathless, and queasy. But, my training helps me to trust that experience, knowing that there will be a release.


It feels good to allow a certain kind of sadness to enter my heart. It creates an opening, a tenderness. That tenderness invites empathy, which enables adaptive action—that is, the type of action that is needed for growth.

How to Grieve Ambiguous Loss

HEART Meditation
I’ve coalesced this process into five steps guided by the acronym HEART. As we identify with these losses we can:

  1. Place our hands on our hearts. As we soften into that experience we use
  2. Easy breathing. We continue by bringing our
  3. Awareness of sensations in our body having a visceral experience of loss. As we notice our conditioned responses to discomfort, we lovingly help ourselves hang in there and
  4. Remain in the feeling. And lastly, we find a place of safety and encouragement as we
  5. Trust the experience of grieving, knowing that it will enable us to move forward and take up action towards the future we want.


Release Fear to Lead

I have also comprised a list of the key steps to take to release our fears and become more effective leaders:

  1. Stay informed (know your limits of how much information is too much for your system to take in all at once.)
  2. Foster regular connection with others who are “safe”
  3. Dialogue, especially to circles that will challenge your beliefs
  4. Protect yourself through self-care: diet, exercise, healthy boundary setting, and periodic physical and digital detox
  5. Let yourself grieve
  6. Begin to envision yourself in the world you want
  7. Take concrete action to build towards your future

On the Other Side of Grief

True leadership arises on the other side of grief. We are all tremendously anxious about this upcoming election. A lot is at stake, but not everything all at once. We must keep the long-term goal in mind as we take care of the short-term need: to transform our anxiety into effective leadership.