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Uncharted Territory


SARA: We need to allow ourselves to be disappointed. We need to allow ourselves to be sad, angry. We have to allow our self to do that and not feel ashamed of it and recognize that if we're angry or sad or disappointed about things being canceled or delayed, that's okay.

Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. As promised, we are taking a departure from the episodes we originally scheduled for Season 2 so we can focus on what’s happening right now – responding to the coronavirus.

Today we are joined by Sara Meinsler, a licensed social worker and professor at AACC in Human Services. As we grapple with the disruption the pandemic has caused in our daily lives, many of us are wrestling with mixed emotions of anger, frustration, sadness and even sleepless nights.

Professor Meinsler shares her thoughts on what is behind those feelings: ambiguous loss. What is it, and how can a better understanding of it help us develop greater resiliency to face the challenges ahead?

SARA: Hi, I'm Sara Meinsler and I am an associate professor in the Human Services department. I've taught for a little over 16 years, but I still am considering myself a social worker. So I teach students counseling, assessment, case management, group dynamics, basically how to become a counselor.

DAN: Well thank you for joining us today. This is our first remote, so glad to have you. How are you holding up during this pandemic?

SARA:  Well, it's been interesting. I'm just taking it day-by-day. It's a new normal, I guess, if you want to call it that. I've holed up with three kids and a dog. My husband is in healthcare, so he is essential and he is working.

DAN: Wow.

SARA: So trying to navigate this with three kids, 16, 14 and 10 and also preparing my courses to go from face-to-face to online. It's just day-by-day.

DAN: Sounds like a lot.

SARA: Yeah, yeah.

DAN: So you recently wrote on social media about a term, ambiguous loss, what does that term refer to?

SARA: So ambiguous loss, it's a loss that's just not clear. A lot of times there's just no closure. It's a situation or a problem that really doesn't have an answer and there's just no resolution to it. I had just really been reflecting on loss a lot because there's just so many that everyone is going through and I had been to some trainings on ambiguous loss and it dawned on me, that's what this is. We're really going through so much that's unclear, that we don't really know, we don't have a lot of answers. And it's uncharted territory kind of a thing.

DAN: There are different types of ambiguous loss, correct? Can you speak to a little bit about that?

SARA: Sure. There are two types of ambiguous loss. The first one really is looking at when there's a physical absence with a psychological presence. So things when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. So for example, right now what we're going through with teaching and our children in school, the teachers are still out there, they're still present in a way, but not physically present. So that's the first type.

So the second type is really the opposite. It's more of a psychological absence with physical presence. So when you think about someone who has Alzheimer's disease or dementia and they are physically present, but they're psychologically absent.

DAN: And this can apply to groups and not just individuals, right? There can be experiences such as war or genocide that would apply.

SARA: Absolutely.

DAN: You mentioned something about closure. What is the significance about closure when dealing with loss and how is that absent here?

SARA: So the significance of it is that we really don't have it right now. We don't, it's open ended so we really don't have that closure that we would, I think, normally get. If we're grieving something, there usually can be some form of closure. With this, it's just the ambiguity of it all. It's open ended, we don't know, we don't have answers so there is no closure, really, so to speak.

DAN: So, so much what you're talking about is just dealing with not knowing. Kind of a continuous state of not knowing. In what ways are people experiencing this now? What are you seeing?

SARA: Well, what I'm seeing is it's the things that were planned, the planned things. For day-to-day things, going to work. For a lot of people, they're out of jobs right now. So they don't know when they're going to be able to go back to work. A lot of my students, I'm in touch with so many of them and they're not able to work right now. I have students that are doing internships, they're not allowed to go back to their internships. So there's that simple loss right there, not allowed to do your day-to-day normal routines and the things that we really, honestly, Dan, I think we just take for granted the things that we just are so used to doing, we can't do anymore.

DAN: Oh yeah, I think of the social side. I'm watching with my kids, one's 20, one's 16. They really miss their friends so much and I look at the seniors of either high school or college and they aren't having the usual milestones that would be occurring at this point in time. They're not getting any of those, which is a form of closure in itself.

SARA: Exactly, exactly. Those are, those are the celebrations and the milestones and the bookends to what they've been experiencing and going through and excited to celebrate and they come to the realization, I'm not gonna be able to do that. Or maybe the will, but they don't know when. For example, with our commencement being postponed, we don't know so there's just that ambiguity. It's out there, what do I do with this?

DAN: One thing that came to mind too, when you said about the physical absence with teachers. I would think for younger children, that must be very difficult for them to have this concept that they're still learning or in school and can connect to their teachers, but they're not really connecting to their teachers. They're not physically present.

SARA: That's right, exactly. My 10 year old is really struggling with it. She misses her friends, as my other children do as well, but I think I see it more from her because she really hasn't had as much FaceTime exposure, she hasn't done all of the social media that I think some of the older kids are used to. So she has really been struggling with just, "I miss my friends, I miss my teacher." And just struggling with that.

DAN: I came across this term a few years ago myself. It's the first time I'd heard of it, but it really resonated with me from experiences I had when I was younger with my mother having an illness and then at the time, my father-in-law was living with us and he had dementia, so it really resonated with me. But I don't think I recognized it in this current situation. So how do people identify that they may be experiencing this sense of ambiguous loss and what are some of the normal reactions that would maybe indicate, oh, that's what I'm experiencing right now?

SARA: And that's actually, I think, what made me really start reflecting on this. So it's a great question because I was feeling so many different things and I couldn't figure out what is this? Obviously, we're going through so much, but I started to really examine physically and mentally and emotionally what am I going through? And just even some of the physical symptoms of just sleep changes and just really more tearful. Even just difficulty concentrating. Feeling exhausted, but really haven't done much. It's not like I'm going out and doing my normal routine. I'm trying to keep active, but it's just, what is going on with my body, my physical sensations? But also just emotionally, I mentioned tears. Just feeling helpless, feeling angry, feeling anxious and just so many feelings and just trying to recognize, okay, the physical sense, the emotional sense, just all of those feelings. Okay, how do I label this? How do I put this in context? Okay, and so grief, this is what people go through when they're grieving and so just really recognizing it for what it is, but also just remembering to talk to somebody about this.

And Irvin Yalom, who is one of my favorite authors and therapist, he coined the phrase, "We're all in the same boat, we're all in this together." And that's just group dynamics in and of itself from a therapeutic standpoint, but now the whole world is. It's not just a therapeutic group. The whole world is and we need to be able to talk about it. But also knowing intellectually that really, we have to do what we're doing right now. We have to social distance, we have to stay at home and that's what we're called to do right now. But we can do that in conjunction with having these feelings.

DAN: You know, the different things that you're feeling, it actually is a relief to hear that you're experiencing them too, because I'm thinking, oh my God, it's like a rollercoaster. I'm up, down, I'm angry, I'm tearful. I can't concentrate, like you said. It's effecting my sleep. So what you're describing is, those are normal for grief. That might be something when someone's grieving, but if you're saying to yourself as I was saying, why do I feel this way now? It's this sense of ambiguity. 

SARA: Yes, absolutely.

DAN: You know, you mentioned about we're all in this and the whole world is experiencing this, but there are definitely people who are pushing back and saying, "What is the reason we're doing this "while others are losing their jobs and such?" How do we help with a greater sense of empathy when we run up against people that may not recognize what others are going through, like you said, your husband's in the medical profession, so you'll be very close to it. How do we help people empathize in this situation?

SARA: I love Brene Brown and she does an excellent video on empathy and just remembering to not do the, at leasts. And I think just saying, "Well at least you have a job, "at least you have a house, at least you have this." I think that that really, when it comes to empathy, we just need to be with people and obviously we physically can't be with people, but reaching out, connecting through phone calls, Zoom, just staying in and being with people and not isolating. Just allowing people to share their thoughts, their feelings with the anger, the depression, the anxiety, anything that they're going through. It's really important to just be able to hear people and to let people know that you are there for them.

DAN: When you posted this, how did it resonate? What are you hearing from people in response?

SARA: I'm not alone, and just appreciation. We have, our program actually, Human Services and Addiction Counseling, we have a Facebook group and I posted it there and a lot of comments, just, "Thank you so much, I just really appreciate this." "This is exactly what I'm feeling." People sharing it, just reaching out to me privately that they're feeling the same way. They're feeling this loss, they're feeling just, they're not alone.

DAN: Well, just like recognizing that we're in this together in the experience, just recognizing that we're experiencing the same kind of thing can be a relief in and of itself.

SARA: Absolutely.

DAN: I certainly feel that way just in our discussion. I'm hoping in your analysis that there's some advice that comes with it. What is the advice or response when dealing with ambiguous loss?

SARA: So, I can't take credit for this, Pauline Boss is the brains behind this and she really came up with six areas, six guidelines so to speak, and one is finding meaning. And we really have to sort of look at the meaning behind all of this and kind of understanding the losses, recognizing what they are, but also finding meaning and even traditions that we can establish that might be different from what our expectations were.

So that's one way that she suggests that we build resiliency. Another that she talks about is adjusting mastery. So obviously, we look at the things that we can control and we look at the things that we cannot control and I think that is really important for us to do right now, especially for those of us that suffer from anxiety. There are a lot of things that we can control and that is our mindset and just how we view things and there's a lot of things we can't control. We don't know when we're gonna go back to work, we don't know when stores are gonna reopen, we don't know these things. So really just looking at and accepting what we can control and what we can't control. So that's the second thing.

DAN: Okay.

SARA: She also talks about reconstructing identity.

DAN: Reconstructing identity?

SARA: Reconstructing identity.

DAN: So she really probably meant to say redefining yourself, is probably what she means right there.

SARA: Well, there you go, there you go. Exactly, exactly. So yeah, reconstructing. So an example that came to mind when I was looking at this, for me, I teach my classes face-to-face. So really, I identify myself as a professor who teaches in the classroom face-to-face. So I am reconstructing my identity to now becoming an online instructor. Now, I do teach online, mind you, but moving a class like Group Dynamics, which is one of my favorite classes to teach because I engage with my students, we're doing group activities. Moving that online, it's been a challenge and it's one of those things that wakes me up at 3:17 at night, multiple nights a week.

But really, it's any identity that we have and if that identity is impacted by this pandemic, we have to take the time and really reflect on that and be able to reconstruct whatever it is. Whatever kind of right now is our new normal.

So that's one way that we can also build resilience. Another is just normalizing ambivalence. Just understanding that, again, we've already kind of established this, but just understanding that our feelings are okay and they're okay in context with what we're going through in this environment that we're all living in now.

DAN: Even if they're a crazy range, that's okay.

SARA: Yeah, that's right, that's right. I mean, this is the new norm for right now and so normalizing the ambivalence of okay, but we are gonna get through this. And just, I think one therapist said, "I can stand not knowing, I can do this." And I think just remembering that and just telling yourself that, I can do this. So that's just another way to build resilience through this. Another way she talked about is just revised attachment. Again, just kind of coming to grips with the new dynamics. Celebrating what we're going through, finding ways to celebrate the little things. And then also taking the time to mourn the changes that we're going through. And we do, we have to recognize it as mourning. This is hard, this is hard stuff that we are all dealing with.

DAN: Yeah, like I said, when I think about those seniors who are missing out, giving them an opportunity to essentially grieve.

SARA: Yes, absolutely. Well, and even the seniors in high school, but even right now one of my students comes to mind and she has worked so hard. She's a single mom with two kids and she has looked forward to graduation for so long and she's just like, "I've worked so hard for this, I just wanna get across that stage." And I'm telling her, "It's going to happen. We're gonna get you across some stage, even if we have to construct a stage and it's just Human Services students and faculty, we're gonna do something. We're gonna find a way to celebrate.”

DAN: Oh yeah, my daughter, who's a junior in high school who didn't get to perform in the play, the musical that she was in, we just did a reading at home with the four of us at home, which was goofy and I'm sure, terrible, to anyone watching it from the outside if they were forced to do that. But it was very entertaining for us.

SARA: I love that. But think of the memory you made. That is something she'll never forget and someday she'll tell her children and her grandchildren that you all did that. And so these are certainly things that we don't expect that we're gonna be telling our grandchildren or children, our children's children or whatever, but this is where we are right now and that as hard as that was, you still made a new memory and you still forged a new path, which to me, that brings me joy that you did that. So I love that.

DAN: Well, that makes me wonder where the opportunities are in this moment. I know it seems so hard at this point as we're all wrestling with this sense of loss. Where are the opportunities, what are the opportunities?

SARA: Great question. And you know, some days I wonder that, but I think, I just really think just holding out hope and that's really actually her sixth way. Just finding hope despite living with the uncertainty. And really just looking at our strengths and if that strength for some people that just are struggling to even get out of bed, you got out of bed today, that's a strength. You brushed your teeth today. Because there are some people that are really struggling and they don't even wanna get out of bed. To those that are in healthcare, we need to celebrate them. We need to celebrate the truck drivers, and to just be grateful for what we do have.

DAN: Sure, those who are restocking the grocery store. I'm very thankful for them.

SARA: Yes, yes! I have a former student that, he drives trucks and I gave him a shout out yesterday on Facebook because he's out there and he's posting pictures of where he is and all the toilet paper that he's shipping from one. I mean, he's taking pictures and I celebrate him. I'm so grateful, so grateful for him.

DAN: All of these different points that you're making about resilience, for yourself, what has been helpful to you as you look at this knowledge that you have, how is this helping you face the current challenges? Which of these really strikes a chord with you?

SARA: I think, that's a good question because I think I try and look at them all, but I think for me, just not going through this alone. And just trying to stay engaged with people, that's what's helping me because I don't do well in isolation, and so I think, also Dan, I'll be honest with you, finding ways to laugh, that's not even on anything I've mentioned before, but just finding ways to laugh and if it's a silly meme that's out there, just laughing and just trying to enjoy each day and really, each hour sometimes for what it is.

DAN: And I think knowing that that's okay because recognizing that some people have some real hardships right now, but that we all need to be able to laugh in times of struggle, I think it's helpful too.

SARA: Absolutely.

DAN: So we learn in our first season that we experience these lighting strike moments when the outside world forces us to change, which is clearly happening now. How do you think we're redefining ourselves in these times? It's early in the process, but if you were to reflect on that, how do you think we're redefining ourselves collectively in these times?

SARA: I think we're really looking at finding that meaning of what's really important. What is really important? And we've had so many things stripped away. If you think about all the things that people look to and really, it's just what is important? What is it from in your day-to-day life when so many things have been stripped away, I know personally, I have thought about this and just, I know family, faith. It's really reflecting on that for me, is just finding out what's important.

DAN: Yeah, that really resonates with me. So that was gonna be my follow-up question. And so for you, it's family and faith.

SARA: Absolutely.

DAN: So how do you think you're redefining yourself?

SARA: Well, I think just giving myself more grace, just not being so hard on myself and just recognizing that I am gonna get through this. That we're all gonna get through this, the advice I'm telling my students, taking that advice to heart, that you're gonna get though this, I'm gonna get through this. Just taking it one day at a time, but also taking the time to, for me, to really examine myself, examine the emotions and the grief, but also finding joy. I don't know, that's just what I keep thinking of. Just finding joy in the littlest things.

DAN: Well thank you, Sara, so much for taking the time to speak with me. I know you're extremely busy right now. You got a lot going on, but we can do this and I think talking to you has really helped me recognize what I'm experiencing, what I'm seeing others experience and has given me confidence. Yeah, absolutely, we can do this.

SARA: Yes we can.

No one asked for this and no one can tell us when it will come to an end. The uncertainty has upended our lives in ways we couldn't predict and still can't fully know. The inability to control was once familiar and routine, has added another layer to the disruption, isolation, and at times, chaos. Yet somehow knowing that others are feeling the same way, that there's even a term to describe it, and that there are concrete things we can do to counter our confusion is itself comforting. We can choose to mourn what we have lost, while holding out hope for brighter days ahead.

Professor Meinsler gave us a number of good tips, from seeking meaning and mastery, to expressing gratitude, finding joy in little things and sharing a laugh. The silver lining may be that when so many things have been stripped away, we are rediscovering what is truly important. And that despite the separation from one another, we are not alone.

Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer is Allison Baumbusch, our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan and Ben Pierce.

Special thanks to Professor Sara Meinsler.

Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website, I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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