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Ambiguous loss and resilience in the times of Covid-19

This is a guest article from Liz Franklin, Senior Manager of Community-Based Mental Health Services at CLUES.

To put it mildly, it’s been a year.  2020 has held multiple experiences that individually would have completely defined this year.  Experiencing so many of them on top of each other makes it hard to even hold the big picture of 2020.  For many of us, the intensity and strain of this year has warped our sense of time and where we fit in the world.  Daily life is so intense that Monday feels like three weeks ago by Thursday, and pre-pandemic life is hazy at best.  At the same time, life can feel so repetitive that coming up with “new news” to share with family and friends is a challenge. 

As the end of the year approached, I thought a lot about what I have witnessed in myself, my family, my colleagues, and the clients I serve.  Two common experiences keep jumping out – ambiguous loss and resilience. 

“Ambiguous loss” is how we describe the emotional stress and grief caused by lost experiences and possibilities.  Social distancing and travel restrictions have left most of us separated from loved ones for extended periods of time.  Most of us had milestones or traditions that we looked forward to for so long, only to drastically change, postpone, or cancel them.  These are all examples of ambiguous loss. 

“Resilience” is how we describe people’s ability to keep going and even flourish after hardship.  It includes people’s ability to experience moments of happiness and peace in the middle of prolonged stress or trauma.  One of my favorite facts about resilience is that when we witness other people being resilient, it increases our own ability to be resilient.  I have been moved to tears many times during the pandemic by the fierce resilience I have witnessed in my clients and other important people in my life.

I’m writing to share a set of activities staff at CLUES used to help make sense of 2020 and look ahead to 2021.  In our gallery, we left up our Altar de Muertos and invited people to add things that represent people who have died as well as ambiguous losses they experienced in 2020.  We had also put up a Christmas tree, and we decorated it with things that represent unexpected gifts in 2020 and our hopes for 2021.  People used poetry, art, pictures, and objects that are meaningful to them. 

As these ideas came together, a few things stood out to my therapist brain about this pair of opportunities. 

  1. They help us get out of “either/or” thinking and practice “both/and” thinking. Being able to acknowledge and hold the blend of positive and negative experiences we’ve had during the past 12 months is a hugely important skill for our mental health and wellbeing. 
  2. There is an emphasis on gratitude. Regularly taking the time to think about things for which we are grateful has an amazingly strong and long-lasting positive impact on our mental health.
  3. People had the opportunity to express themselves with words but also in other ways. Sometimes there aren’t words for our experiences, or we’re too upset to find them, or a color or shape or song just expresses it better. 
  4. Focusing on experiences in 2020, the end of the year, and the start of the new one helps us get re-oriented to time.
  5. They help us witness others’ experiences and have our own experiences witnessed. Taken together, this mix of experiences feeds our resilience on individual and collective levels.

However, you choose to do it, I hope you find time for these experiences, too – holding positive and negative feelings together; gratitude; different forms of self-expression; finding where you are in time; and connecting with others. Most important, I hope you treat yourself as deserving as much help and care as you give the people most important to you.

About Liz Franklin  - Senior Manager of Community Based Mental Health Services

Elizabeth Franklin earned her Master of Social Work from the University of Minnesota. Liz has worked with Latino children and parents in the Twin Cities for fifteen years in mental health programs in schools, homes and office settings. Liz specializes in working with youth who have survived trauma and who often also have learning or developmental differences, and with their families. Liz is the Senior Manager of Community Based Mental Health Services at CLUES. She runs the Children's Mental Health Case Management Programs, the CTSS (Children's Therapeutic Services and Supports Skills) Training Program, the Fairview-MHealth Cultural Broker Partnership, and supports social work interns.


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