Ambiguity and Acceptance in the Time of COVID-19

On March 25th, 2020, I had the honor of meeting with some of the top women business leaders in the Seattle area. These ladies are some of the hardest working women I know. They are smart, creative and committed to not only making their businesses succeed, but they also want to make the world a better place. We meet regularly through our connection to WPO – The Women Presidents’ Organization.

Over the past two years, we have all been planning for a possible recession, examining ways to strengthen our businesses and readying our team to be nimble come what may. Little did we know that a pandemic would be the force that knocked the wind out of everyone’s sails in the blink of an eye. Yet even in the midst of fear, sadness and disbelief, these women are resolute and ready to lead their teams no matter what it takes.

As a social worker and Aging Life Care professional™, my life’s work has been to manage a myriad of crises with my clients. I liken what is happening in business today to what families go through when their parent receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. First, the stages of grief ruthlessly unfold, and then, seemingly hopeless ambiguity sets in. Ambiguity in terms of wondering how long this will go on, questioning what it means for the future, worrying if their savings will last as the bills begin to mount, and figuring out how to marshal necessary support.

These parallels remind me that business owners can be resilient and get through this pandemic just as countless families I have worked with have year after year.

Dr. Pauline Boss, Emeritus Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Minnesota, wrote extensively about ambiguous loss in her books: Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief and Loving Someone Who Has Dementia. She defines ambiguous loss as “a loss that is unclear, it has no resolution and no closure.” It’s a duality of being present and absent at the same time.

Business owners I know feel this ambiguity in their bones right now. They have staff, expenses and their businesses are closed – yet still open. Many things continue as usual – yet, they don’t – nothing is usual right now. It’s hard to make decisions because it’s uncertain how long this will go on, what the outcome will be, and when the financial reserves will dry up. These are the exact uncertainties families caring for someone diagnosed with dementia experience every day, year after year – and still, they make it and are often stronger for having gone through the journey. But how?

Dr. Boss’s tools for caregivers can be applied to business:

  1. Accept the ambiguity. Acknowledge that things have changed – they are different now.


  1. Think both-and (not either or). Businesses can be both opened and closed. Recognize that two contradictory ideas can be true at the same time. We must trust that things will work out, that challenges can be managed, and that businesses can be resilient.


  1. Change your perceptions. Business owners thrive on and make decisions with data and facts. But when there is ambiguity, data is not as clear cut as it used to be. Business owners can learn to work in the gray zone where information is opaque and make the best decisions possible based on what we think we see.


  1. Foster resilience. Nurture your optimism, know that you and your business are not alone. Build a community of support and take care of your own health so you can care for those that matter most to you. It helps to find meaning and your purpose during the journey – it’s there – keep your eyes and heart open even when you are scared. Look to your company and personal values to guide your decisions. If you do, you’ll have little to regret.

My clients have taught me that a crisis is the best time to make transformative changes. This time of challenge can foster our innovative spirit and lead us to unexpected success. Even though no business owner would volunteer to steer through these choppy pandemic waters, we can weather this storm, make it safely to shore and discover new possibilities, just like my clients and their families have.

Jullie Gray, MSW, LICSW, CMC, is a Fellow Certified Care Manager with over 30 years of experience in healthcare and aging. She is a principal at Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care/geriatric care management practice serving King and south Snohomish Counties. Jullie is also past-president of the National Academy of Certified Care Managers and the past-president of the Aging Life Care™ Association.