I always come away with new information after Art a Whirl, our big open studio event. People frequently recommend books on topics related to art or on the topics I am exploring in my artwork. At our recent AAW I had a long conversation with some visitors about ambiguous loss, a term that was coined in the 1980s by author Pauline Boss. Ambiguous loss is exactly what it sounds like, a loss lacking clarity, hence a loss that doesn't conform to the structures we have to help support those experiencing loss. Responses don't fit the expected grieving pattern because the loss lacks clarity and finality.
The collapse of the World Trade Towers is a perfect example of ambiguous loss, We have had other recent examples with planes disappearing into the ocean. In these cases we have a physical loss, but without confirmation. Gone, but not gone.
I was interested in this concept because I often experience the reverse. Here, but not here. As my mother lives with Alzheimer's she is here physically, but not always fully here in other ways, at least not in the way to which I had grown accustom.
Unlike a loss with clarity, ambiguous losses may drag on for an extended period and lack a means to acknowledge grief. I recently picked up Boss's book Loving Someone Who Has Dementia and was intrigued by a quote she shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. The Crackup 1945 p69
It is the ability to deal with ambiguity. Those of us who are Js on the Myers Briggs probably don't fare too well in this department. We like our clarity, but fortunately this is an ability that seems to grow with age. Those of us who have difficulty with ambiguity often seek control of our surroundings, but if we live long enough we learn that any control is largely illusionary. The world is filled with grey and the absolutism of youth takes on tonalities.
The only certainty with Alzheimers is that it is a progressive disease. It will unfold as a series of gradual losses. Boss writes of how those who cannot deal with ambiguity either deny the illness or write the person off. The former may say,"oh it's just normal loss of memory from aging". The latter may say "it's not worth me visiting as she won't know the difference". In either case it is a forced clarity even if it is an incorrect one.
My sister and I talk about this a lot relative to our mom and I think we are reasonably grounded in our approach. We love our mother in whatever form we have her and are both reality based, "It is what it is"- our mantra. Between those two premises we find our path by supporting my mother as she goes through this process and supporting each other. I often think how much more difficult this would be if I wasn't sharing it with my sister. We have a sense of my mother's essence that we continue to appreciate. I try not to think of what is gone lest I fail to appreciate what is still in front of me.
Boss writes of an accountant who had a low tolerance for ambiguity and struggled with his father's Alzheimer's. What served him well professionally was very counter-productive in dealing with his father, no doubt true of me to some extent. A career with numbers often attracts those drawn to control. I have often struggled to let go of that side of myself in creating artwork. Creativity is born out of the unknown, it is about feeling our way, uncertainty, ambiguity and exploration. And perhaps my creative work has ultimately helped me deal with the duality of my mother's experience, this thing I have absolutely no control over. Here, but not here.
The brain doesn't like ambiguity. It works hard to resolve it. When frustrated by the duality of absence and presence it frantically seeks resolution. As a culture we value mastery and control. We seek closure. We are also a culture that denies death and that causes dementia to be frightening. There is much ambiguous loss in the roots of American culture. Boss proposes that as a nation we are founded on unresolved grief. Immigrants left their family behind, often to never see them again. Slavery was also an engine for ambiguous loss. It occurs to me that the Jewish community that I explore through family history research is seeped in unresolved grief, whole communities wiped off the map during the Holocaust.
So how do we move forward when caught within this duality, presence yet absence? Boss advocates curiosity and it occurs to me that painting this experience is my way to explore it, to bring my curiosity to bear. I hear my mother's words and emotions and consider what imagery they conjure. To paint someone's experience you have to imagine it, to ponder what it feels like. Sometimes that takes me too close to the flame. It can be a frightening place. In every parent's experience is the often unspoken fear within their child that we too will share it some day.
I often find reading about Alzheimer's challenging. It is too close to home as I participate in my mother's journey. But this approach to the subject is intriguing to me, considering the roots of ambiguous loss in our culture, our brain's resistance to ambiguity. And of course I find myself considering how I would paint ambiguous loss.