Ambiguous loss. It started slowly at first—a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, which was likely causing the pain radiating down his leg. Four surgeries later, with minimal relief, a regular regimen of injections, pain medications, and nerve blockers, his life steadily changed. No more baseball or bowling. Gone are the days of lively Senior Softball tournaments. Our dancing shoes are gathering dust. And social activities are limited. Why was this happening? And what the heck are all these emotional flare-ups? We discovered we are struggling with ambiguous loss—of the life we once loved.
What was an active lifestyle, has turned into one of isolation. Not only is the spinal problem to blame, but we are also living in the throws of COVID-19. We’re not as young as we used to be, and my husband has a couple of other compromising conditions that keep us sequestered at home.
So, we are grieving the loss of lots of things—and they seem to be piling up.
Jim has been a non-stop athlete since he played Little League baseball. Except for soccer, he’s played almost every team sport there is to play, plus golf—and he hurt himself in practically every one of them, too.
He caught a baseball in the eye once. At the age of 42, Jim was still playing semi-pro football—and he has the knees to prove it. When he was 55, he got involved in tournament softball, traveling the Midwest and Southwest winning five world championships over the years. He used to run like a deer.
By the way, he was a tournament bowler throughout all these years on top of it all.
In his mid-60s, Jim’s body began to show signs of wear. First came the lower backaches, then shooting pains down his leg. After several scans, he received the diagnosis. He was losing the cushioning between his vertebrae—from head to waist, but significantly in his lower back. No wonder he was in so much pain.
Jim had his first two back surgeries in one year and returned to playing ball. After many conversations about whether that was a good idea or not, he was not ready to give up his favorite pastime. I understood, yet remained concerned about the damage he might be doing in the long run.
Little did we know.
Road trips are my thing. Whenever Jim had a tournament, I’d relish the opportunity to plan the itinerary for a family outing. With the food prepared, bags packed, and the animals in the car, we’d take off for parts previously unknown.
We’d spend our days watching the teams play—all the wives together cheering them on. As evening rolled around, we would plan dinners with our friends, go dancing, sing karaoke, and often be there till the last call.
And, when we weren’t on a road trip, we were entertaining friends and family at our home. Jim was the life of the party. Bar-b-ques, pool parties, and family reunions—the more, the merrier.
When Things Change
It has been about eight years now since things have changed dramatically. The big house on an acre of land got to be too much. So we moved.
After the fourth surgery, the surgeon was recommending one more. Something told us it was time for another opinion. One of the premier spine institutes is in Phoenix, and we got to see the head of the department.
It was then we knew nothing would ever be the same. When the surgeon told Jim that he would not recommend a fusion of his lower back because he had a 50% chance of feeling worse, Jim took his advice.
Jim spent the last four years managing his pain with injections, pain meds, and a spinal cord implant to kill the nerve pain. He was a tall, strapping 6’3” “Marlboro Man” kinda guy, who is now 5’11” because all those discs have disintegrated.
He can’t stand for long or walk very far without excruciating pain. His most comfortable place is sitting on the couch or lying in bed.
So, life has changed—now what?
The Stages of Ambiguous Loss
We’ve come to learn that the stages of ambiguous loss are not unlike the stages of grief—it might be called ambiguous grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s research suggests we experience denial or disbelief, anger, guilt, depression or sadness, and acceptance.
“I can’t believe this is how I’m going to live the rest of my life,” Jim said in disbelief the other day.
The anger comes out in both of us at different times, especially when we’re tired or bored, or both. Gratefully, we are tuned-in enough to each other that we catch ourselves quickly, and apologize for the tirade.
I think Jim may feel a bit of guilt now and then, although I don’t think that’s a big one for either of us.
Sadness, for sure, is a prevailing wind that blows in our home. It is the emotion we struggle with the most. I wonder if it is the part that feels the most ambiguous.
If acceptance is the final stage, what I know for sure is my Jimbo isn’t quite there yet. We’re working on it. I, on the other hand, have chosen to accept the cards dealt and do my best to make them a royal flush.
How We Are Managing the Ambiguous Loss
To me, the loss of the life we loved often feels uncertain, confusing, unclear. I guess that’s why they call it an ambiguous loss. One thing I know for sure, though. It is what it is. That’s the state of acceptance I want us both to feel. So, we’re testing things out, and these are some of the ideas that have worked so far.
Hosting the Pity-party—although this is not a party where we want to linger, throwing one for just the two of us sometimes allows the emotions to surface and release. Acknowledging that this new life is not what we envisioned helps to get it out on the table. Then, we can talk about how to make the most of our new normal.
Finding New Solutions—one of the things that bother Jim the most is when there is something that needs doing around the house that he used to do. If I can do it myself, I do it before he gets up in the morning—that way, I’m not rubbing his face in it. If I can’t do it, I talk with Jim to decide together who we can hire to help us do it the way we’d like it done. We compromise.
Talking the Truth—these are never comfortable conversations to have, but they are necessary. When we talk about this journey we’re on together, we focus on how we are feeling. The sadness, anger, and disbelief are frequent topics of discussion. Then, we work hard to find the silver linings—like making our time together special, even though we are doing different things than we envisioned. Another one is feeling blessed that we met each other over a quarter-century ago after two failed marriages each. The Keeper of the Stars knew what He was doing.
Cherishing the Memories—and there are so many beautiful memories. This one comes easy for us because we’ve done so many fun things. We seem to drop right back into that place and time when we are reliving a fantastic trip or recalling an amazing visit with special people.
Seeking Laughter—it’s one of those things that quickly evades us if we’re not careful. Thankfully, Jim and I each have great senses of humor. So, when one of us succumbs to sadness, the other will think of something to say or do that lifts the spirit and creates a lighter mood. And, when all else fails, binge-watching old reruns of “Friends” help.
It’s an on-going tale of love, big adventure, and change. Ambiguous loss is just a label that describes another kind of change in our lives. It may be vague; we may not know what comes next. But, we’re figuring it out together—just Jim and me.
Take the First Step
If you are facing adversity and living with uncertainty about how to move beyond it, you may wonder if it’s even possible. Making choices that move you forward can be hard, and getting some guidance may be just what you need. Start by exploring how change can impact you? And learn how to move through it with more dignity and grace by reading my free ebook, then let’s have a chat. Click here to take the first step: From Darkness to Light: Learning to Adapt to Change and Move Through Transition.
This post is very timely as I am struggling with loss as well. Thank you for your guidance and suggestions.
Melanie, I’m grateful you took the time to comment as you struggle with ambiguous loss, too. I hope what is working for us can help you, too. Every day is a new opportunity to find silver linings.