My Tedx talk- Ambiguous loss & tragic optimism: Our journey through collective grief
I recently gave a Tedx talk on the subject of ambiguous loss and tragic optimism. The talk comes from my own personal journey of change, loss, and transformation. You can watch here on Youtube- https://youtu.be/vhjeBLW8jiw
Additionally, I have partnered with the wellness app, Soaak to do a 21-day program designed to teach you how to grow through grief and loss while learning new techniques to cope with these feelings. You can access that here https://soaak.com/bob-hutchins/
Lastly, my site at https://www.collectivegrief.org/ has more information about Collective Grief and contact information.
Below is the talk. I would love to hear your feedback if it resonated with you or if you have questions. Thanks!
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Some of you may remember when JFK and MLK were assassinated & you’ll never forget how you felt for days & weeks afterward. Some of us can remember the exact place we were when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. Most of us remember the feeling of learning about Princess Diana tragically dying in a car crash. Collectively, these experiences — from school shootings to racial injustice — affect us all in a collective, communal way. None of us escape the feeling of grief & loss.
Many of you may also remember that feeling you had the first time your child moved out. I remember it like it was yesterday & it was over 10 years ago when my oldest son left home & went away to college. There had been a lot of excitement around his acceptance letters, high school graduation, & then at the end of the summer, helping him get organized before dropping him off to start this new chapter in his life. We still had 2 other kids at home & his room still looked the same. I thought I was prepared for this big change, this new reality, but I felt such a deep sense of loss — loss of his presence and his spirit in the house. I knew I could call him anytime and I knew he would be home again throughout the year — but honestly — I was a mess.
It wasn’t the first time I experienced this feeling of loss. Like so many people, I’ve had my struggles with depression, burnout, and existential crisis. I can remember so clearly the end of a particular two-year downward spiral in 2017 consisting of a failing business, broken business relationships and friendships, financial failure, and mental exhaustion.
What I didn’t know at the time, was that these losses have a name — called Ambiguous Loss. It’s a phrase that was popularized in the 70s by Child and Family Therapist Pauline Boss. She describes the concept as the stress & anxiety that can result either when there is a physical absence with a psychological presence — like when my son left for college. But it can also be from a psychological absence with a physical presence — like living with someone who has an addiction or who has Alzheimer’s. When you have a continuous connection to someone or something that you can’t quite possess or find, that’s Ambiguous Loss. Many of us around the world felt that on 9/11 — and weeks thereafter — or when there was a deadly tsunami in Thailand. Even if you didn’t personally lose someone during those dramatic events, you most likely felt Ambiguous Loss — a communal loss that we grieved together — we looked for answers — & it was complicated.
And then came the pandemic. The pandemic has been exhausting in so many ways & we all feel it — individually, collectively, and globally. While our personal stories may be very different they may also be very similar.
It used to be that when I came home from the office pre-pandemic, I felt this bubble of privacy and protection that was almost never breached. Once I drove my car into the garage and shut the door behind me, there was a wall of separation between myself and the outside world. For me, this feeling meant privacy, peace, rest, solitude, and time with my family. On a Friday, it felt even better! Those boundaries are now blurred — and not just for me. The blurring of those, and so many other boundaries, has taken its toll on us.
Maybe you don’t even know how to describe this terrible feeling. Is it dread? Exhaustion? Hopelessness? It’s Ambiguous Loss.
Please don’t be confused by the word Ambiguous. The pandemic loss is very real with nearly six million deaths around the world. But there have been other reverberations that we are feeling — the ones that are hard to pinpoint — the ones we can’t seem to forget or move on from. Ambiguous Loss & the continuing ‘blah’ feeling is very real.
We may also feel Ambiguous Loss under less dramatic circumstances.
Do you remember the last time you called an 800-number & went through an endless maze pressing 1 for English, 3 for Billing, then entered your account number & waited on an endless hold until finally getting a customer service rep on the phone who finally said you needed to call a different phone number? Did you feel frustrated & annoyed & maybe even a little sad? Most likely, you felt a sense of Ambiguous Loss — not really knowing why you felt some grief over an automated call that has become so common in this day & age — but maybe because you felt voiceless or unsupported.
As someone who works in consumer behavior and studies Organizational and Behavioral Psychology, I am always looking at ways that organizations and groups of people process things, which has been quite extraordinary in the pandemic. As a society, we had to process the very real & tangible losses — mass illness, loss of income, school closures & office closures, to name a few.
Although the feeling of Ambiguous Loss probably kicked in after the shock wore off, it is just as real. For many of us, it came in
the form of constant anxiety from the fear of getting the virus or family members getting sick. We were also grieving the loss of our routines & daily habits — the way we used to move around in this world. There was this loss of the way things “used to be.”
In February 2021, The Journal Lancet stated this regarding their review of studies about Pandemic mental health. “Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. Some researchers have suggested long-lasting effects.”
Just as we feel this collective loss over the events I mentioned earlier — we can also feel collective triumphs! The fall of the Berlin wall. Landing on the moon. Olympic gold medals… We watched TV & felt the excitement of the global triumph. Together.
I came through my own earlier crisis and breakdown with the help — and hope — of something I now understand to be Tragic Optimism. The phrase was coined by Viktor Frankl who was a renowned psychiatrist & Holocaust survivor. He wrote about it in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Tragic Optimism is the search for meaning during the inevitable tragedies of human existence. He believed there is hope and meaning to be found in life — while also acknowledging the existence of loss, pain, and suffering. Frankl said that when we have a “why” to live for, we can bear almost any “how.” One sentence in his book really stood out for me & still rings true today. “When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.” After tragedy, there is this natural opportunity to change ourselves — to find purpose, to feel
some hope. That’s because Ambiguous Loss organically leads to Tragic Optimism & in a sense, one can’t exist without the other.
So while many of us are still dealing with Ambiguous Loss, we are also experiencing this opposing force called Tragic Optimism. For me, it feels like there’s this undeniable undercurrent that is brewing with hope and resilience. We can see it all around us — acts of kindness towards healthcare workers, local heroes bringing communities together, a rise in volunteerism & donations, and a general view toward a hopeful outcome after we get through all this.
Tragic Optimism drives us forward because life itself always finds a way to overcome. Immediately following the 9/11 tragedy, people almost spontaneously came together to help, to heal, and then collectively process something that was unimaginably horrifying and traumatizing. And then our lives did march on.
Ambiguous Loss is a feeling of grief — but it is also a trigger for Tragic Optimism — to re-evaluate & redesign our lives.
We’ve seen a rise in the popularity of new apps for improving one’s mental health, new opportunities to connect online with friends or family to watch the same movie simultaneously, or play the same word game even though they live far away. The ability to set boundaries or practice saying ’no’ for people who used to find that word very difficult. Maybe the pandemic has also gotten us into some new and improved routines. It may have brought your family closer. Maybe it’s allowed you to re-calculate your work/life balance. Because of the Ambiguous Loss, Tragic Optimism breaks through for these newfound ways of life.
There is no shame in feeling Ambiguous Loss — it is a normal experience for everyone. Viktor Frankl also said, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
To come through this experience, we must all look for purpose & meaning in these times. It is purpose and meaning that can lead to lasting happiness.
Helping others, reaching out to friends, forming support groups, being innovative in the ways we manage our business and work life, and finding new ‘normals’ in our homes and families. These are all ways we can collectively be tragically optimistic and be collectively resilient — from Ambiguous Loss toward Tragic Optimism.
And it doesn’t end when the pandemic becomes endemic. There will be a next time in some way, shape, or form. Maybe not exactly like in the past, but certainly, in our individual lives, you may experience Ambiguous Loss.
And when you are in the throes of that loss, that grief…. that’s when it’s important to remember that Tragic Optimism will follow, as it always does. It allows us all to continue to work, parent, and live our lives — even if they have drastically changed. It’s what drives us to keep moving forward, together, even though we are not always sure where we are going.