The world lost a beloved leader last week with the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thousands have been paying respects to her and her legacy as many of us grieve and mourn.

Grief is a natural response to the loss of a specific person. But there’s another kind of loss that we might also be experiencing, one that’s much less understood.

It’s called ambiguous loss.“It isn’t our usual feelings of sadness or grief — we aren’t feeling a specific emotion due to the loss of a specific person or object. The kind of grief we are experiencing is especially challenging because it is a reaction to the ambiguity of losing more intangible parts of our lives.”*

Ambiguous loss is squishier. It’s a more subtle, nuanced response to missing something or someone that sort-of seems like it’s still around, but isn’t really.

In the case of a person, for instance, it can occur when we’re caretaking an elderly family member with dementia. You’re looking at her, but she’s not really there anymore.

We know RBG is gone. That’s not ambiguous.

What’s ambiguous — squishier — is what she represented: ideas, beliefs, keen and true leadership. Personally, with RBG’s passing, I’m feeling the loss of a champion, a hero, a warrior on behalf of humanity, a protector, a role model, and a fine, noble human being.

I’m feeling more vulnerable, less safe, more sad, more angry. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court is still standing as an institution. However, can I count on it anymore? Are those legal protections RBG fought for as strong as they used to be? Do I trust the system to be right and fair and balanced?

With an ambiguous loss, there’s no clear way to get closure. There’s no tangible “The End.” We feel sad, perhaps confused, even angry, without any place to put those emotions.

RBG’s passing is another in a long series of ambiguous losses that we’re wrestling with these days, no matter whether we want to or not. And the losses keep piling up. Our psychological safety nets are being ripped apart almost every week, it seems.

Jobs and careers, political systems, rights and laws protecting those rights, our physical and mental health, our normals, the things we counted on in the Before Time, are all up for grabs right now.

How, then, do we cope?

One thing I’m doing is to call on those parts of me, the internal voices and energies, that help me carry on when the carrying on feels too much.

We all have the energy of an Inner Protector, Inner Warrior, the Wise One, etc. See if you can get quiet and hear the voice of one of these within yourself. That’s one strategy you can explore for yourself in coping with ambiguous loss. You can also try some of these ideas …

  • Name what you’re feeling; when we can name it, it’s less squishy.
  • Give yourself extra downtime, extra space for being with yourself without a to-do list.
  • Create a place/space in which you can vent, scream, weep, be exhausted. A walk by yourself outside, some time with your journal, an earlier bedtime, a session with your therapist can all help.
  • Remember that you’re not in this alone; there are many of us walking this path together. We have each other.
I’m gonna let RBG have the last word today. It’s a personal favorite. “Never underestimate the power of a girl with a book.”
Love, Melanie
The Happiness Doc

P.S. If you’d like to find out more about ambiguous loss, here’s a link to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the psychologist who coined the term.