Pauline Boss grew up in a Swiss American immigrant family in Wisconsin where, she says, “Homesickness was an essential part of my family's culture.”
“I could see the sadness periodically, like when my father would get a letter from Switzerland, or worse yet, a letter with a black rim around it, which meant announcement of death in the family,” the family therapist recalls in her 2016 conversation with Krista, which we’re resurfacing this week. “So, I was always aware that there was another family somewhere, and that there was some homesickness, except where was home?”
The in-betweenness of her father’s homesickness would now be considered a form of “ambiguous loss.” And this is thanks to Boss’ own scholarship: Through her psychology research, she coined the term to describe forms of loss that are not so clean cut — when someone is physically present but psychologically absent, or when a loved one suddenly goes missing and there was no opportunity to say goodbye or understand what happened to them. It’s when, she says, something is “both here and gone.”
The ambiguity of this experience can be uncomfortable in American culture. "We like to solve problems. We're not comfortable with unanswered questions,” Boss says. “And [ambiguous loss] is full of unanswered questions ... And so, that kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we're very uncomfortable with as a society."
I found homesickness to be a helpful metaphor for what we’re experiencing now amidst this pandemic. It’s not to say that our pre-coronavirus world was perfect, or to engage in an illusory nostalgia. It is instead to recognize that 2020 has been a year marked by loss, as Krista says, “both ordinary and profound” — “from deaths that could not be mourned, to the very structure of our days, to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers and plans and dreams.”
Seeing this grief for what it is may allow for the beginnings of a turn. Not toward “closure” — which Boss says is a great word for real estate and business deals, not for human relationships — but instead a new reality that holds both what was and what is. “It’s paradoxical. The more you want people to get over [grief], the longer it will take,” Boss says. “You have one foot in the old and one foot in the new. And one can live that way. That may be the most honest way to do it.”
This conversation is for those who have not been able to properly mourn the loss of their loved ones; for those heartbroken by what this pandemic has uncovered. This episode is also for those who have found the comforts of another time less comforting now; for those whose anticipations for the year have peeled away slowly in segments, like a tangerine; for those who are not even sure what we’ve lost and what we’re in the midst of finding.
Editor, The On Being Project
P.S. — For more, listen to the Living the Questions episode we recorded this week, where Krista and Pauline pondered what it means to be living through this collective moment of ambiguous loss.
This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista Tippett
“Navigating Loss Without Closure”
The family therapist who created the field of “ambiguous loss” with practical wisdom on how to live with what’s lost.
Living the Questions
"It’s really settling in now, the losses large and small"
A soothing and sometimes counterintuitive reflection on carrying ordinary grief in a time of pandemic.
From our friends at L’Arche
We wanted to share this welcome update and series of reflections from the L'Arche communities — how they are living through pandemic and social upheaval, and continuing to process the "earthquake" of the revelations about their founder (and former On Being guest) Jean Vanier.
Recommended Reading & Listening
Read | “The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice” by Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer shares a powerful story about how a friend showed up for him during the depths of his depression — and how we all might do so for those who are hurting.
Listen | “The Erotic Is an Antidote to Death” with Esther Perel
The relationship therapist references Pauline Boss’ work on ambiguous loss in her conversation about loneliness in relationships.
Read | “How to Reach Out to Someone Who Is Struggling” by Omid Safi
A thoughtful piece for those who are trying to figure out how to be present to those going through a hard time.
You can find more reading and listening in our onbeing.org library on mental health.
A conversation on museums and healing
Wednesday, July 29, 2020, 6 p.m. ET
Krista speaks with the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch, about how museums are adapting to a changing world amid the pandemic, rising xenophobia, and antiracist uprisings. They’ll ponder how museums can respond to the needs of communities, promote tolerance, enable empathy, and shape conceptions of ourselves and others. Learn more.