Burning it Down : Ambiguous Grief and Loss

Written by: Athen Fisher, MAS, LMFT While overseas in Italy studying abroad, just a couple weeks before Christmas and a week before the program ended, my sister and I got news that our family home caught fire due to a faulty chimney product.  It started in the attic and spread across the roofline and burned from the top down.  Fortunately, there were no injuries.  Someone driving by noticed the smoke coming up and alerted my mom who was home in the house getting ready that morning.  She and our dog got out, and my dad was already gone for work.  From the inside of the house there were not indicators or signs of a massive spreading fire that would take down an entire home, but from the outside, it was very apparent.  My mom grabbed a couple things and the dog and went outside, the fire department had been called, and they essentially watched the fire crews put out the fire while our house burned down and everything in it.  It was a “total loss”, which means nothing was salvageable.  It was a total devastation. My sister and I were already in a foreign place for several months and dreamed of coming home to our family, our country and our home for the holidays.  And then it was gone.  We returned back to Arizona and settled back into life in America again, but were displaced and living in my grandparents’ home for quite some time.  I decided to transfer from my college in California to ASU so I could be back where I came from.   We went through some of the contents of the home which were covered in soot and soaked from the fire hoses. Most were damaged beyond repair, although there were some items we were able to salvage and try to restore. We all felt sadness, loss, grief, displacement, and a lack of normalcy over the next year or two. Over the course of years and quite the insurance process, my parents, who are custom home builders, rebuilt our home.  It was very similar structure and layout wise, with some major differences as well in appearance and style.  It was a family trauma and it impacted all of us in different ways.  My parents held on to what they could control, and I tried to forget about it by working, going to school, hanging out with friends and trying to numb the strange feeling. I thought about the fire the other day when I was working with a client around grief and ambiguous loss over the relationship with his father that he would never have.  The client’s father had an unhealthy, dysfunctional pattern in the relationship with client as a child, in which the client idolized him, but the father had addiction issues, narcissistic traits and exposed him to the dangers of the world at a young age and then later abandoned him when he was an older adolescent.  This client worked so hard to do all the things, make a good life for himself in hopes to eventually be “good enough” to hear his father say he was proud of him.  His father was out of his life for so many years, and when they reunited finally, the client felt that little boy come out that wanted his father’s approval, his stamp of worthiness.  The client’s father did not give that to him, as he was far too absorbed in himself to ask about the client about himself or anything else, and the client was left with now knowing that there was not going to be a happy ending to the story, a part two that included a healthier relationship and connection with his father.  His hopes and dreams for what could be were burned to the ground. Often, it is the unsaid, unspoken hope and expectations we hang on to for someone to change, or for a relationship or situation to change, that are at the root of the pain and heartache we feel when those expectations are not met.  It is a process of grief and loss for what did not happen but we longed for, hoped for, that we go through.  Grief is not a linear process and there is a lot of back and forth and cycling through the various emotions and stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I see a fire as a metaphor for what happens in this process.  Our expectations, hopes, dreams, desires for the future or the relationship or what we wanted things to be like our burned down to the ground.  We don’t have any anymore.  It may feel empty, devastating, yet it also takes off the pressure and the expecting that leads to the painful sense of disappointment and failure; it opens up a whole new space for new growth, rebuilding the way that is hopefully healthier for you.  You get the chance to decide how you want to rebuild things and use the knowledge, understanding and knowing that you now have to customize the foundation and the expectations you hold tight and dear to your heart.  This happens during the acceptance stage.  The old wound can heal, though a scar and a story will always be there.  It is a painful process, but those silent hopes are finally spoken and we can explain, organize and articulate the letdown, why the pain is there, the heartbreak. This analogy also comes up in the therapy room when I am working with a couple in which it becomes apparent that one or both partners does not see a healthy future with each other any longer, but separate.  The uncoupling process is often about letting go of unmet expectations and needs, grieving the loss of the future you had pictured with the other, and opening up space for the possibility of something healthy in the future.  It is messy, it is painful, but there is room for another chapter for each of the partners.  Their marriage and relationship will always be a part of each of their stories, even if it doesn’t last forever or transitions into a co-parenting relationship rather than a romantic partnership. Individual psychotherapy and couples therapy is a great way to get support in letting go of expectations or relationships that have not worked out, or grieving an ambiguous loss. If you are ready to burn some things down, process, grieve and rebuild in a healthier way, at Love Story Therapy, we are here for you.  Part two of the story may be different than hoped for or imagined, yet it can be beautiful and meaningful.  In the end, it is yours.