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Meaning in Ambiguity

Dr. Pauline Boss of the University of Minnesota has developed a theory called “ambiguous loss,” which we can use to orient ourselves in this season of COVID-19. Ambiguous loss is a circumstance where due to unimaginable circumstances, an individual or group of people experience ambiguity or uncertainty such as not knowing that one is experiencing grieving or how to begin the grieving process because it is unclear when the originating event will end. My piece today is inspired by a great article by Michael McNulty that explores how to cope with COVID-19. For now, I focus on finding meaning in ambiguity. I ask: How or where can you distill meaning in the midst of uncertainty? When I ask myself this question, here are a few answers that come to mind that you might implement yourself:

  • Journaling: In my own spiritual formation, I commonly use journaling (with words or drawing) to organize and express my thoughts and feelings. Voicing my internal experience enables me to foster a sense of peace and groundedness. Try using pen and paper or even art supplies on a paper bag as you get your thoughts out.

  • Prayer/Meditation/Reflection: Whether you are seasoned in private reflection or trying it for the first time, consider the power of being present with yourself (whether by yourself or with others while practicing physical distancing). In this space, one can find meaning and growth while having a quiet dialogue with oneself or with a higher power. With regular engagement in this practice, one can foster peace and understanding of current circumstances.

  • Spiritual Reading: For those who access a spiritual tradition through a specific text, consider fostering a regular reading time of that text or an adjacent topic in the morning or evening. You could read a chapter or even a few paragraphs of said text. In my reading of a religious text, I experience how poetry and stories written millennia ago have applications to the here and now. Sometimes, a one-liner that reframes adverse circumstances can be found where one least expects it.

  • Digital Community: Religious institutions and spiritual communities have quickly adapted to using online platforms like YouTube, Zoom, Instagram, and Facebook to relate to others. These communities are hosting weekly meetings that have verbal teachings and singing/music in a plethora of languages (and even closed captioning if you use Youtube), weekly classes where you can pursue a spiritual/religious practice, or even a time of prayer/meditation. Sometimes making sense of the uncertain can be found in a shared digital experience.

Support is out there. If the world you’re experiencing seems so ambiguous that you feel lost, consider the use of a spiritual/religious community to ground and reframe your circumstances.


Lou Lim is a licensed mental health counselor and registered expressive arts therapist (REAT) with a master's degree in Expressive Therapy and Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University. He is a member of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association and on the committee for REAT credentialing. He has 13 years of experience in counseling and expressive therapy working with children, adolescents, teenagers, adults, and retirees.

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