The Longing for Normal: Coping with Ambiguous Loss

We keep saying it over and over again. “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” We have such high hopes for normal. We will take that trip to Europe we planned, or have our grandchildren sleep over. We will have that big birthday party with all our or go back to pick our own produce at the grocery store. We will leave the job that we hate and jump into something new or we will go back to the office five days a week or not. We’ll go to a UT football game or not feel afraid every day our kids go off to school. There is so much we long for. 

In a recent Washington Post article, Amanda Uhle wrote about what was happening around her home in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan football stadium. In January the 100,000 seat stadium was a mass vaccination clinic and now, nine months later it was the site of an in-person football game, masks and vaccinations encouraged but not required. The forthcoming game could turn into a super spreader event, or it could not.[i] She wrote, “I knew that that crowded game might be bad for everyone who attended — and, most likely, for those of us who merely live in the region, too. And yet in the lead up to the gathering, I couldn’t help but thrill a little at the fact that it was happening at all. It’s a story about the world being normal again, and the glory of autumn afternoons in the stands.”[ii]

We all long for things to be as they were before March 2020, for what was normal. And now brace yourself because I have some news. The only place that to find normal is a setting on our washing machine or dishwasher. Normal just doesn’t exist. And still we long for it because we struggle with ambiguity, with the uncertainty that has marked the last 18 months of our lives. While this may sound trite, the reality is that there is no going back, there will be no return to normal.

We are living with ambiguous losses. Ambiguous loss is one that occurs without closure or clear understanding. It leaves us searching for answers, thereby complicating the grieving process. Dr. Pauline Boss coined this term in the 1970s.[iii] Her research centered around immigration, addiction, divorce, and aging parents. Ambiguous loss, she found, occured around more catastrophic events, such as war, genocide, slavery, holocaust, natural disasters, or catastrophic illnesses or head injuries.[iv] Ambiguous losses cause frozen grief. 

The experience of ambiguous loss presents itself like this: first, because loss is confusing, people are baffled or immobilized and struggle to make sense of the situation. Second, uncertainty “prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss.”[v] Third, “people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss.”[vi] Fourth, “the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just…”[vii] Finally, ambiguous loss is a loss that goes on and on, those who experience it become physically and emotionally exhausted from relentless uncertainty.

Sound familiar?

This is a description for so many of us now or at any point in the recent past. As a people we have gone through this before. In the book of Numbers, our Israelite ancestors get fed up with the uncertainty of the future in the unknown of the wilderness the promise of the Land of Israel. We read in parashat Beha’alotecha that the Israelites became complainers, they yearn for the life they knew before. The abundance of food in Egypt. That’s right, Egypt, the place where they were enslaved is what they desire. The familiar, the known, slavery, seemed better than the uncertainty of what lay before them on the journey to the Land of Israel. The dramatic shift from slavery to freedom, including the trials and tribulations of the wilderness, was not without difficulties. Part of our collective memory as a Jewish people also holds in it ambiguous loss, too.

One of the ways to manage ambiguous loss is with ritual. Rituals provide closure, they give hope, and they enable us to move forward. Yom Kippur comes at just the right time. Yom Kippur, its rituals and liturgy, provide us with the opportunity to confront what was and prepare for what will be. This Day of Atonement cannot cure our ambiguous loss, that isn’t possible. It does provide us with the chance to use ritual to recalibrate our hearts, minds, and spirits to cope with our ambiguous loss, to name it and to move forward. It is an opportunity for us to wipe our slate clean and to enter into this new year with a sense of hope and possibility. 

There are the rituals to ready us for Yom Kippur. Those who are able to fast from food and drink, refrain from anointing ourselves, wearing leather soled shoes and dress in white as a symbol of a humble and contrite hearts. These acts are a means of enabling us to focus on our words of prayer and to concentrate on the health of our souls as we do the communal work of repentance. 

The liturgy of Kol Nidre nullified any promises or vows that we made last year. We were released from all the things we said that we would do and did not accomplish, and we have been forgiven as the verses say following the melody of Kol Nidre, “vayomer Adonai selachti kidvarecha,” ‘And God said, ‘I have forgiven as you have asked.”[viii]We will repeat similar phrases throughout the day today because, even if we are in the midst of the work, God is ready to forgive us, we come together today to ask.

Rabbi Peter Tarlow taught:

Yom Kippur is in many ways the essence of Judaism. Perhaps no holy day better than Yom Kippur symbolizes Judaism’s belief that there can be no intermediary between God and each of us.[ix]

Today we stand before God.

Later, for the first time this Jewish year, pray the words of Yizkor, the memorial prayers for the dead. Yizkor is our opportunity to remember those we have lost. More than 4.5 million people have died from Covid-19 around the world. More than 60,000 have died in Texas. Those numbers are almost unimaginable. And for those of us who lost someone we knew, someone we loved to Covid, Yizkor is there to help us to honor them and to open the crevices of our hearts that we’ve closed off to allow their memories to enter. This year Yizkor will also provide us the space to acknowledge additional losses. That we couldn’t get there in time. That we missed family gatherings. The ritual of Yizkor reminds us of the imperative to remember. 

And at the end of our day together, we will gather for Neilah, the concluding service. Though the work of prayer is exhilarating, it is also exhausting. Neilah is exuberant. When we get there together, you will notice there is an excitement, an enthusiasm even in the hope for tomorrow. There will be a new normal, one that we face together as a community. When Neilah concludes and the final blast of the shofar is sounded we will metaphorically close the gates. What was in the past is just that, in the past. When those gates close we can move into the future refreshed and renewed. And just to make certain, we will also do the ritual of havdalah, the ritual of separation, splitting the holy from the regular, a holy day from Thursday.  

Yom Kippur is our day to release ourselves from what was, to name our fears, our sins, and our hopes, and to prepare our hearts to enter this new year. May this be the year we stretch our tolerance for ambiguity for there is no going back. Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.


[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/09/07/pandemic-magical-thinking-illogic-emotions/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: learning to live with unresolved grief. Harvard University Press.

[iv] https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/

[v] Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: learning to live with unresolved grief. Harvard University Press. P. 7.

[vi] Ibid. p. 8. 

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur, p. 20.

[ix] Tarlow, P. (2005). In Yom Kippur readings: Inspiration, information, contemplation. Edited by Elkins, D. P. p. 27.

About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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