Change and Loss

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

I don’t know who said it, but one of my all time favorite quotes about change is:

“The only person who really likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.”

After all, even someone who embraces change has something they want left alone.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about change and change management is the idea that all change, even longed for change, involves loss. Change always means giving up something and in many cases that ‘something’ is important and often personal. Therefore, people often experience a grief reaction to change which I think is an important reality to remember right now since we are living in a time of tremendous and constant change and loss.

I get up to walk each morning before the sun is too high. During that walk, I sometimes enjoy the quiet. Other times I listen to music, podcasts, and lately books. The past two days I’ve listened to a pair of OnBeing podcasts and I’ve been introduced to the idea of ‘ambiguous loss.’ Pauline Boss pioneered the concept and according to her there are two types: Physical absence with psychological presence and psychological absence with physical presence.

In recent weeks, a number of people have come to her and asked isn’t our experience of the pandemic ambiguous loss? Her answer was yes. While she had studied this concept at the individual and familial level, now “[s]uddenly, it has this global meaning.” Dr. Boss and Krista Tippett spent time discussing the losses that people are currently experiencing.

To me, one of the most important aspects of this explanation for our current experience is the reminder that everyone we are interacting with is experiencing a loss of some kind right now. Each of us as individuals is experiencing a loss whether or not we have identified it as such. If we haven’t experienced the extreme versions of loss – death of a family member or friend, loss of a job, etc., we may be tempted to minimize our own experience or that of others. But the hard reality is that we have all lost something, most of us have lost many things that are important to us – time to be with family and friends, graduations and other rituals, normal routines, or the ability to make reasonable plans for the coming semester.

Each of us as individuals is responding to the massive number of changes in different ways. Anger, fatigue, an inability to focus, tears, sleeplessness or needing more sleep, the list goes on. Our campuses, organizations, and communities are responding in a variety of ways as well. For some, individuals as well as organizations, the response to the uncertainty is to hold on to routine, to do what is safe and usual. This may be applying policy as we always have, trying to replicate every program or service online, or holding people to some idea of productivity that can no longer reasonably apply.

I encourage you to stop for just a moment and acknowledge what you have lost over the past few weeks and months. Allow yourself to admit that you are grieving. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. And then think about the colleagues you work with and acknowledge that they are grieving, too. What can you do to support them in their experience of loss and grief? What about your family and friends? How might identifying and acknowledging their own losses and grief help them? We all need to find ways to take care of ourselves and each other because this global experience of ambiguous loss will be part of our experience for a long time to come. And to do this we have to practice empathy and compassion, grace and forgiveness for ourselves as well as other.

Hugs to you all,


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