Living With Loss

It is an inevitable part of our journey that we will encounter loss, confront loss, be overwhelmed by loss.

Today, we start with self. As you read it will become clear why.


Pauline Boss is an emeritus professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. She has spent 40 years focussing on understanding how we experience ambiguous loss.

Her 1999 book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief is a touchstone for those who work in this area.

Today’s email draws on two episodes of the On Being podcast.

Boss developed ‘ambiguous loss’ to capture the experience of families whose loved ones were soldiers who were missing in action. They were gone, but not gone.

Her work expanded to include other types of ambiguous loss. Instances where one’s loved one is physically present, but illness means they are psychologically different, for example someone with Alzheimers. Your loved one is there, but not the same.

Boss describes these losses as being “illogical, chaotic, unbelievably painful.”

Her work is obviously applicable in this moment. Our world is here, but not.

That loss triggers a complicated grief.

It is compounded by the grieving for the loss of loved ones, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of neighbourhood businesses that have been markers of our sense of place and community and are now shuttered.

She is dismissive of the notion of closure.

She says “living with grief is more oscillations of up and down. Those ups and downs get farther apart over time, but they never completely go away…” And that’s okay. It’s human.

She reflects on the caregivers of people with various forms of dementia, “Most of the caregivers I have met and studied and treated are not depressed; they’re sad. They’re grieving. This should be normalized. Sadness is treated with human connection.”

To be sad is normal.

Verbalising the sadness helps reduce the stress.

Many of my clients have reflected that the most powerful interventions they have had with their teams in this time, has been to create the space for people to share how tough it is.

Sometimes we are confronted with an inexplicable tragedy.

Finding meaning helps us process loss, but Boss says we need not try to find meaning in the tragedy itself.

“If something is nonsensical, totally without logic, without meaning, as many of these terrible events are, then I think we have to leave it there. But I think we have to label it as ‘It’s meaningless.’ I can live with something meaningless, someone might say, but what I’ve found is, as long as I have something else in my life that is meaningful.”

She notes that so often we are told to seek the perfect answer, to ‘get closure.’ Yet reality is messier than that. It doesn’t always allow for that.

She says, “We really have to give up on perfection, of a perfect answer. There are a lot of situations that have no perfect answer”, but one can nevertheless decide to journey forward.
Thomas Moore, in Dark Nights of the Soul, captures this beautifully “how can you get out of a natural process of change? How can you medicate self-transformation?” He says the only way is to embrace the darkness, the sadness, to go on the journey with the intent of transforming your life, for loss has transformed your life.

One can decide.

You can decide to live with the pain of loss and find meaning on the path of life. It’s not perfect. It never is. Sometimes there is no cure, only transformation.

Working from his apartment’s courtyard during the early days of lockdown, the superbly talented Matthew Hindley magicked these beautiful abstracts into being. It teaches us that even in our darkest moments we can choose to bring beauty to the world.

One can decide.

We are all responsible for implementing strategies for ourselves and our souls. Some of us are also responsible for strategies that affect others’ lives.For many, workplaces are now a place of ambiguous loss. Not only has the nature of work mutated, but almost everyone has lost colleagues because of retrenchment.Work is the same but not.

This causes complicated grief. Grief causes profound fatigue.

Allow space in your organisation and plans. Ignore it and you’ll implode your business. Your teams are sad. They are tired. Help people re-energise. Don’t push to hard. It’s not the same.

Boss says that simply listing the losses helps release some of their stress.

Put aside thirty minutes and write down what has changed. It’ll be hard, but it’ll help. Sharing them with others helps even more.

Have fun.

It need not be elaborate.

Boss says that she has taken to drinking tea from a fine china cup. A client of mine held their first post-lockdown meeting in a neighbourhood park.

Have fun. Be gentle. Take it easy.


I discovered Naomi Shihab-Nye’s poem, Missing the Boat, thanks to The Paris Review.

It reminded me of the times in my life that ‘the sea’ has called me but I got in my own way, insisting I wanted the train.

I am grateful for Roxanne who consistently reminds me that I love the splash of seawater, even when I insist on the predictability of the tracks.

How often have you let the boat go by?
Who reminds you that you love the splash of sea water?
It is not so much that the boat passed
and you failed to notice it.
It is more like the boat stopping
directly outside your bedroom window,
the captain blowing the signal-horn,
the band playing a rousing march.

The boat shouted, waving bright flags,
its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.

But you had this idea you were going by train.

You kept checking the time-table,
digging for tracks.

And the boat got tired of you,
so tired it pulled up the anchor
and raised the ramp.

The boat bobbed into the distance,
shrinking like a toy—
at which point you probably realized
you had always loved the sea.

Allowing your mind to override what your soul desires is its own form of loss. Listen more carefully to your other intelligences.

I wish you a week in which your ideas of who you are soften a little allowing you to step onto the boat.

If you enjoyed today’s mail, please share it with others. They can subscribe here.


PS: There are only 9 or 10 working weeks left in this crazy year. If you’d like to use this time to process what the year has meant for you and your leadership get in contact with me. You can learn more about my coaching process on my website.

If you’re curious about what others’ experience working with me, check out the Recommendations section on my LinkedIn profile.

(This letter was first published on 11 October 2020)

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