Paradox, ambiguous losses, and staying centered in uncertainty

My client’s mom was doing well in her treatment for cancer—but my client, Yesmina, wasn’t.

Her what-if worries (that the cancer might return) constantly kept her body on alert and shortened her breath.

In the Pacific Northwest, we’re not taking full breaths either.

We’ve had weeks of unhealthy or off-the-charts hazardous air quality, and worse in California.

In real life, that means:

  • Brown air, even inside (not an attractive look in the bathroom).
  • Staying indoors as much as possible.
  • Inability to chat with neighbors on the porch.
  • Shortened walks, if any.
  • Temperatures below the previous week’s weather forecast by 20℉.
  • Constantly delayed forecasts of when we’ll find relief.

As this neighborhood sign says: Everything is Weird.

Hardware sign that says: Everything Is Weird. We are Open."

Photo by Susan Moses Nelson.

For the burning West Coast, Yesmina, and all of us, there are no guarantees. We’re living in uncertain times.

Living with uncertainty is… uncertain.

We tend, though to try to make sense of the possibilities, to organize the unknown by imagining worst-case scenarios in the future. Because uncertainty doesn’t have much else to hold onto.

Still, those worst-case scenarios aren’t very comforting either. And other than buying a lifetime supply of toilet paper and air purifiers, they don’t give much direction.

Uncertainty is a form of “ambiguous loss” or unresolved loss, a field defined by Dr. Pauline Boss. It started with Missing-in-Action families from the Vietnam war, and can also define losses in illness, dementia, unsettled transitions, burning states, politics, racial reckoning, and rapid environmental change.

Get grounded in being ungrounded

So what can you do? First is to let go of the urge to do. Our western culture focuses on results; for us, that can show up in worst-case scenarios, Pollyanna optimism, charting the statistics for cancer return, or even forced positive thinking.

Instead it’s time to be with uncertainty. And that means sitting with paradox: dual opposing sensations or beliefs at the same time.

Dr. Boss might suggest that Yesmina say to herself, “My mom’s cancer might return. And she might be well for 40 more years.” That duality gives her reprieve focusing only on the worst possibilities, or trying to make herself stop thinking about them.

For me, when my anxiety about the fires closes me off, I embrace paradox by saying, “I’m anxious, and I’m okay right now.”

It means making peace with I don’t know. Feel the discomfort in your body, or ground in feeling ungrounded. If you stay focused on a fearful story, you keep yourself from being with the reality: we just don’t know.

Feeling uncertainty—ambiguous loss—allows you to be present with both the discomfort and things to be grateful for.

(By the way, there’s a lot more about the interwoven flow of paradox—I send my appreciation to Ragini Michaels for teaching me about this—but embracing the non-linear nature of reality is a good place to start. )

When it’s time for you to know what’s next, you’ll know. Right now, address what’s right in front of you and within you. You can be open to possibilities, even when life is weird.

small yellow star with blue outline

For smooth sailing on uncertain waves,


P.S. I gave my most comprehensive interview about the 7 pathways to Tanya with the Whole Life Accelerator Virtual Event! Hope you can listen in!

Invitation to Sondra talk on Whole Health Accelerator

yellow star with blue outline
Ambiguous Loss
Ragini Michaels
Photo by Susan Moses Nelson

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