In wake of the 2016 Presidential election, I, like many Americans was rife with emotion. For me, shock, embarrassment, confusion, and anger were among them. The morning of November 9th, 2016, I remember traveling on the subway to my job as a mental health therapist in New York City. It was a particular area of New York I was dreading on that day, especially. I emerged from the D train at Columbus Circle and was confronted by the soaring tower of our new President. Immediately, my insides churned in angst. As I looked around, I noticed a vast majority of individuals wearing black, walking around as if they were zombies from “The Walking Dead!” The energy of the morning surrounding the so-called acropolis felt suffocating. I, too, had been wearing all black that day as it felt time to mourn.
For several weeks, I sat in a murky cesspool that enveloped my body with anger, disdain, and utter sorrow. Part of me wanted to join the rioting, but another part of me couldn’t move. It was rare for me to feel glued to one particular spot. Akin to traditional views of the New York lifestyle, I had a get-up-and-go type of personality. Not then though. This was unprecedented.
As a mental health professional, I strived to make sense of my feelings and figure out what needed to be done. I felt as if part of my identity had been taken from me. Did I even want to be thought of as American? That alone made it a unique loss I had never experienced.
I was reminded of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief involving death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Except for me, I seemed to be experiencing the first four all at once. I could not fathom what was happening. I struggled to control my anger. I assumed it was all a bad dream. I did not want to face the outside world. Somehow, this felt different from death.
With traditional grief, individuals often experience Kubler-Ross’s five stages sequentially as we process a passing at our own pace. This self-determined processing of the stages of grief is important for eventually gaining closure. A death is often clear, concrete, and explainable – this experience of loss made me feel none of those.
While some might view what happened on the eve of November 8th as a death of our nation – a demise of American values, traditions, and culture – I argue, it was not a death, but a wound that needs to be healed. To achieve this healing we need to gain a sense of meaningful understanding about what happened and what it will mean for our lives on individual and societal levels. For me, and I’d imagine for many others, those answers remain ambiguous, and thus hard to understand. This lack of understanding is why feelings of paralysis and confusion occur.
To me, America still stands as a great nation, with unparalleled beauty, unforgettable history, unbelievable innovation, and unyielding strength. How could those qualities represent death? Instead, I consider what happened to be an ambiguous loss. Coined by Pauline Boss, the concept describes a relational experience of unexplainable, or unresolved loss, such as when a loved one is physically absent but psychologically present, or physically present but psychologically absent. In this case, the “loved one” is our country, whose “body” to some, may have become broken. I felt its physical presence, its tectonic land mass, but somehow I could not see the footprints to my old vision of future that I thought had been firmly created.
The events that unfolded characterize psychological absence as it threatened our definitions of humanity. They made salient the controversial views of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and many other social factors that used to emphasize our country’s remarkable difference. The difference that used to embolden us and make us unique, but now, cast in a negative light, has seemingly tarnished our “great” reputation.
To me, those aspects of the American identity we have built for centuries represent America’s psyche, leading us to think, feel, and behave accordingly. We, the people, are the blood that filters through the body, essential for life, but also vulnerable to contamination. America’s psychological absence represents its body becoming injured, its mind infiltrated, and its blood infected – a human experience that is necessary for life. Overnight, it became a country few could recognize. On Saturday, Jan 21st, those who marched in protest of the Presidential outcome brought our always great nation back on its feet, making steps towards healing the “wound” we endured and reinvigorating what it means to be American.
For this reason, I have resolved to view the aftermath of the election as an ambiguous loss. This ambiguity does not need to paralyze us, nor does it need to be clarified right away. We should continue to use our mind, body, and blood for good rather than evil if we have any chance of transforming this ambiguous loss into a concrete gain for our lives as Americans.