Ambiguous Loss

The COVID-19 virus has changed the way we “do life” and “do church” so that we are simultaneously absent and present. In her book, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, Pauline Boss writes: “This ambiguity between absence and presence creates a unique kind of loss” that she calls “ambiguous loss” (2006, pp. 1-22). Ambiguous loss contributes to sadness, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. Here are some examples of church-based ambiguous loss that you as a pastor may have experienced since mid-March 2020. Many pastors have replaced greeting one another with a friendly embracing or a “holy kiss” with physical distancing, elbow bumps, and face masks. While some faith communities can safely social distance in large worship centers, others will continue ZOOM or Facebook Live worship to protect others who are more vulnerable. Who ever thought that hearty congregational singing could threaten your well-being? But singing or even humming through your face mask just doesn’t feel the same. Your church may have swapped those weekly, free-wheeling, large group, covered-dish cook-outs with “bring your own picnic” and sit 6-feet away from other families groups. Can you identify with the paradoxical components of absence and presence in these examples?  If the idea of ambiguous loss resonates with you, here are 5 things you can do to retain or regain your emotional balance:

  1. Take time to grieve. Acknowledge what losses you have had – ecclesial and personal.  Would they fall into the category of an “ambiguous loss?” Name them and identify what aspects of absence and presence exist with each ambiguous loss. Allow yourself to experience the sadness that may arise within you. At the same time anticipate how God may transform your ambiguous loss into new moments for ministry. See Matthew 5: 3-5. Can you identify and then acknowledge the specific losses you have had during this time? What aspects of absence and presence have you experienced?
  2.  Examine your perceptions & interpretations of life. Times of crisis and trauma invite us into a deeper and more nuanced understanding of who God is in relation to these negative experiences, what theologians call “theodicy.” Examine how your thinking lines up not only with the whole counsel of Scripture, but with the categories of Philippians 4:8-9. What Christian beliefs support your hope for tomorrow and affirm God’s presence in your life today? 
  3. Identify what you can and cannot control. Many of us spin our wheels trying to exert control over things of which we have NO control, and abdicate control over our words, intentional thoughts and actions – those things we can control. You cannot control the COVID-19 virus itself. But you can choose to wear a face mask to protect others even if you do not like to wear a mask. You can practice physical distancing as an individual and as a church gathered for the sake of those who are immunocompromised. You can encourage those with resources in your congregation to contribute to the financial care for those in your congregation who have lost their jobs  Acts 2:42-47. Can you identify a couple areas over which you can have control? Can you identify any areas to let go of, recognizing you have no control? 
  4. Practice self-care in order to care for others. Perhaps you have never developed habits of self-care or your self-care avenues have not yet reopened, such as fitness centers.  Because ambiguous loss can contribute to increased depression and anxiety, you can take action to increase your resilience by prioritizing your mental, physical, and spiritual health. Self-care is one way that you can love God with all your whole self by caring for the WHOLE temple of God (your body). This will help you to have energy to love others well. What area of self-care has been most lacking that needs attention? Can you identify one action step to take to address this area of need?
  5. Develop new, meaningful rituals of connection. Social support is essential when we are facing loss of any kind, but even more important to help us move through ambiguous loss. Ironically, COVID-19 has stripped many church communities of our historic rituals of connection – passing the peace, corporate communion, holding hands during prayer, etc. The challenge now is to create meaningful ways to connect with others through new, yet safe practices that reaffirm our Christian commitments and sense of Christian community. What are one or two other ways you can create meaningful connections with people in your ministry?

To learn more about ambiguous loss, see the following resources:

Boss, Pauline. (2006). Loss, Trauma, and Resilience.  New York: W.W. Norton.

An interview with Pauline Boss, Understanding Ambiguous Loss

See this article from Bill Doherty, “Cocooning During COVID 19”

Adapt the Ritual of Connection card deck for your family, your pastoral team, and/or your congregation

Develop a realistic self-care plan


Emotional contributor: Dr. Toddy Holeman, Chair, Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care at Asbury Theological Seminary

Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus

Curator of content: Dave Higle