“Prepare for the worst”
Today I heard Pauline Boss talk about Ambiguous Loss. I realized that I agree with her, but came at it from a completely different approach. She says “With ambiguous loss, there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity.”
“Prepare for the worst” is actually just the first part of a sentence, and how I came to the door of acceptance. “Prepare for the worst, and it can always get worse,” is the whole sentence I carried around for many years. I laughed at people’s naivety when they say “Life is so terrible, it couldn’t possibly get worse.” Don’t be foolishly short-sighted, I thought; of course it can get worse.
This was my roundabout way of coping with ambiguous loss. It is the brute force method companion to the pure method of acceptance. Which frankly, coming from a non-compassionate, forceful and misplaced passionate way of dealing with emotion, suited me just fine.
I think the root of ambiguous loss is that, while something traumatic happened, the trauma may not be over; the trauma has no definite end. Examples include dementia, divorce, MIAs, and cancer. In the case of a kidnapping, for example, there is the ambiguousness of what happened and if things will get better or worse. There is no closure to look forward to. A point where one can put a trauma behind them, and stop thinking about it in favor of thinking about more meaningful items. Even the Kübler-Ross model of grief doesn’t contain closure; it contains acceptance.
I think closure is something people invented as a tangible thing for our brains to hold on to. This is a fallacy that ends up creating more harm than good though. When it’s all said and done, acceptance of the situation is healthier than closure, as Pauline describes. In fact, closure is more about something being over, when in reality what happened is that a situation changed. A kidnapping isn’t the end of anything…it’s the beginning of a new (ambiguous) reality. My sons’ deaths aren’t an end for me…it’s the beginning of a new reality. And I will never forget them and what they’ve taught me. I don’t want closure.
What I did with my phrase is create a sense of ambiguity by imagining there will be more to come. I refused to accede to closure. This was borne from necessity, as experience had taught me that whenever I had attempted to reach closure, new inputs created additional trauma. Now, I should mention, that while I believed wholeheartedly that something else would be coming, I never dwelled on what that would be. I never catastrophized. Despite my controlled pessimism, many people chose to see me as a Negative Nelly, and a depressed pessimist. It was simply my coping mechanism during difficult times.
I should explain the first part of the phrase. “Prepare for the worst” was always my way of trying to lessen blows and anticipate surprises. These things, I learned, are not pleasant when in a negative context. I wanted more of a soft pillow for bad things to land on when they hit my brain. This allowed me to react in a mindful way instead of purely reactive. Because the negative things I experienced were complex, and required complex, mindful action (not knee-jerk primitive reactions). It is similar to thinking one step ahead. The dangerous pitfall is paranoia, and staying away from that edge was a delicate dance.
Another important part of this is to ensure that I prepared for applicable “worsts”, knowing that they might still come from left field that I hadn’t prepared for. So I mindfully kept some processing power available for accepting incoming situations … whatever they may be. Again, never wholly thinking this will be the last bad thing. Or that I’ve anticipated everything.
The second part of my phrase continues this thought, solidifying the fact that there may be something else coming. “It can always be worse,” it was my way of creating acceptance of the unknown. Of the additional. I accept there will be more. I accept this is not over. I accept that closure is unconstructive folly. In fact, Pauline mentions that it is actually healthy to revisit the grief from time to time. To remember. To feel sad.
Thus, I can say I was ready for all the situations life placed in front of me. I was ready to care for my son with lifelong debilitating developmental disabilities. Ready for a daughter with CP. Ready for a wife’s reproductive cycle that was all but impossible to crack. Ready for triplets. I accepted all these things. Embraced them.
I think Pauline’s idea is the right one. Acceptance is the correct way to proceed. And I think everyone’s road to getting there is as unique as that person. In fact, I think if we as humans spent more time concentrating on acceptance and living in the moment instead of excessively ruminating on the past or neurotically and reactively predicting the future, we could use all that energy to appreciate beauty and mindfully plan how to move forward based on where we want to go.
Pauline goes on to say that the only way to live with ambiguous loss, is to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time. Continuing with the kidnapping example from above: he’s gone and probably dead, and maybe not. It just so happens that I did the same thing. My opposing view is “Hope for the best.” This whole phrase is now a tool that I have put down in favor of other tools. I know I can use it again should I need it. This is what I have indelibly inked on the skin of my arm, as a reminder.
Prepare for worst, hope for best. – Benjamin Disraeli