By Kahini Iyer Sep. 06, 2020
If we haven’t been among the millions to suffer the tangible loss of friends and loved ones due to Covid-19, we are fortunate. Yet all of us, without exception, are dealing with a different, more “ambiguous loss”, a sudden and collective bereavement for a way of life that may never return.
My parents, both over the age of sixty, recently bought a portable oxygen metre for our house — the kind where you stick your fingertip into a snug little trap and receive a reading within seconds. Like hand sanitisers and fruit and vegetable sprays, these nifty devices have become a staple for pandemic living, the idea being that if your oxygen levels are normal, you don’t have symptoms of Covid-19, at least not worrying ones.
About once a week, my mother will whip out this oxygen metre and the family gathers for a ritual testing. Each time, our worries have been allayed by the sight of a friendly 99. And each time, she exclaims over my elevated heart rate, swapping one health concern for another.
It’s true that my cardiovascular state leaves much to be desired. I work out conscientiously in lockdown, drink plenty of water, and eat my fruits and veggies. But while my body has fallen in line, responding to my efforts with gratifying promptness, my mind is far more stubborn. Even as I try to occupy myself with work and whatever diversions I can find within the same four walls, I can’t shake the hum of low-grade anxiety that creeps in, keeping me awake at night and ruining my perfect oxygen metre scores.
Of course, all this is perfectly normal. Millions of people around the world are struggling with their mental health, a natural consequence of a deadly pandemic and a global economy in shambles. We currently live in a scaled-up, reversed version of the groundbreaking Rat Park experiment: When a group rats in the confines of a cage were given easy access to cocaine-spiked water, they fell into dissipation, jonesing for the high every day until they died of overdose. But when their cage was upgraded to a community rat park with plenty to do, most rats favoured the normal water, or dipped into the drugs only on occasion. The cocaine, it turned out, was a coping mechanism for these highly social animals who were forced to be isolated from the support systems they relied on.
A sense of “ambiguous loss”
If we haven’t been among the millions to suffer the tangible loss of friends and loved ones due to Covid-19, we can count ourselves as fortunate. Yet all of us, without exception, are dealing with a different, more “ambiguous loss”, a sudden and collective bereavement like the rats who were deprived of their usual coping mechanisms and turned en masse to drugs. No longer can we unwind over dinner with friends, a soothing cappuccino, or a walk on the beach; there are no more bustling workdays in office or parties in bars to fill our days and evenings, and fulfill our need for human interaction. At a time when we most desperately need an outlet, there are so few left available to us.
At a time when we most desperately need an outlet, there are so few left available to us.
I found the term “ambiguous loss” in a recent piece on Medium, titled “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful”. It defined ambiguous loss as “any loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution. It can be physical, such as a missing person or the loss of a limb or organ, or psychological, such as a family member with dementia or a serious addiction.” As Pauline Boss, a family therapist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Minnesota, quoted in the piece says, ambiguous loss “in this case, is a loss of a way of life, of the ability to meet up with your friends and extended family… It’s the loss of our freedom to move about in our daily life as we used to.”
It’s a strange grief to be without any means to make ourselves feel better, indeed, to make our way of life more liveable. Many of us have done our best, resorting to baking endless loaves of banana bread, concocting face masks, taking up musical instruments and yoga as we pass week after week at home. But rarely do these efforts make a dent in this sense of ambiguous loss — of time and control, freedom and opportunity. They only help it grow monotonous, so it keeps on manifesting like a perpetual motion machine, in a constantly elevated heartbeat, a restless leg and a devastating “new normal” with no end in sight.
How do we cope with an unending problem?
In times of extraordinary trouble and stress, we are all equipped with a kind of “surge capacity”: a rush of adrenaline that gives us superhuman strength, the ability to spend weeks without proper sleep to close a vital project, or at the sickbed of a loved one watching them slip away. These are the emotional reserves we hardly know we have until we need them to cope, and they are not designed to last.
In a lockdown that has stretched on for months, stripping time of meaning, our surge capacity has long since been depleted. Rather than tapping into our stores of strength to deal with the banal yet profound losses of our everyday life, we’re forced to look for alternatives that will better our way of life instead.
So how do we cope with this paradox, the inability to use our coping mechanisms? I couldn’t begin to answer this question until I left the oppressive confines of my home for a villa in Goa — an indulgence in this era of salary cuts and uncertain futures, but one that made me remember what it was like to be at ease in the midst of all these ambiguous losses.
In a lockdown that has stretched on for months, stripping time of meaning, our surge capacity has long since been depleted.
Far from the cramped quarters of a metropolis where daily reports of case counts invariably open every conversation, it felt like being able to breathe again. Not only did I find the sweet relief of open spaces that enabled me to step out without a care, I also got out of my bubble of isolation. More than anything, it was living with my friends after months of only the occasional masked walk and hermetically sealed drive that refreshed my flagging spirit.
After all, what’s the point of existence under a bell jar, making judicious choices in the interest of a future that is impossible to predict? As much as we may wish reality was taking place post-Covid, it’s actually happening now, replete with marriages and heartbreaks, celebrity babies and funerals.
It is the ultimate and least fair of all cliches that life, inexorably, goes on. But the coping mechanism for me has been that, in the face of all these ambiguous losses, we’ve gained a fresh understanding of what it means to cope. Right now, it can be as simple as getting to another day that will be exactly the same as the last, or making another tweak to perfect your banana bread recipe. Perhaps if the rats in the cage had known that they weren’t alone in their experience, they would have felt a little more fortified to stay off the snow.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.