Life is different these days — there’s no denying that. I am one of the fortunate ones in that I’ve worked from a home office for close to twenty years. While so many people are trying to adjust to working remotely, for me, during my workday, it is almost business as usual.
But life, as it so often does, has thrown us all a curve ball. I smile when I hear about practicing social distancing. I really don’t need much practice at it. I’m a seasoned pro by now. One recent night, my wife Sarah and I were being the socially distant pros that we are, staying home, snuggled up on the couch watching television. Though I don’t recall what we were watching, a scene of people close together caught my eye. It was clearly footage filmed during the innocence of pre-pandemic life.
It may have been an on-screen hug, perhaps a handshake, but at some point, there was human-to-human contact. And in what amounts to a completely unexpected reaction, I found myself profoundly sad. It was a sadness that felt like it penetrated my soul. I was, at least for a moment, looking back in time at a society that no longer exists as it used to be.
The sense of loss and grief that I felt caught me off-guard. While I’m not the only one who misses the ease and simplicity of life before everything changed, my experience as a brain injury survivor means that I’ve walked through things that many others have not. In short notice, I was able to put a label on my feelings of despair. I was feeling ambiguous loss.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, ambiguous loss is defined as, “a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers.” I learned firsthand about the concept of ambiguous loss in the early years after my traumatic brain injury. It was, without question, the toughest time of my life. For several years, I cried almost daily as I sought to understand what had happened to me, why some of my family had left me, why friends who had heretofore stayed close to me, made the decision to fade away and out of my life forever.
The hardest part of it all was grieving the loss of self. The David who was, simply ceased to be, only to be replaced by someone unfamiliar. I was a stranger to myself. It was devastating – and it also had a name – ambiguous loss. Against my will, I was becoming an expert in the field, not by classroom training, but rather by living it. Nothing beats on-the-job training!
Last month I wrote about how the pandemic-induced loss of human contact mirrored the experience of many of us within the brain injury community. The pandemic continues to isolate people from each other in a way that many of us survivors already knew about.
At this point in time, all of humanity is dealing with ambiguous loss. It is painful, and with that pain comes feelings of despair, perhaps hopelessness, definitely frustration, as well as wondering if life will ever be the same again.
For a moment, I am going to ask you to think outside of the box. I look at each of us as an individual neuron in the giant brain of humanity. That giant brain of humanity has been damaged by the pandemic. We have experienced a societal trauma, a trauma that has left most of us feeling a profound sense of loss. Thank goodness, this is not the end game. The good news is that like a human brain recovers through the development of new neural pathways, so shall we, as society, follow the same recovery path. Like so many brain injury survivors have already learned, we will develop new ways of doing things, new ways of relating to others, and new ways to compensate for changes that have been forced upon us.
We are already seeing societal compensatory strategies become part of our new normal. Zoom meetings are happening everywhere, and slowly, we are all adapting. Don’t believe me? Just think about how difficult things were a month ago, and now think about today. It’s not easy, but it is easier. We are all adapting.
As the new societal neural pathways continue to develop, life, though different, will begin to feel familiar. And just like brain injury recovery is lifelong, so shall be our societal recovery.