For those of us who’ve experienced a major loss – whether it be our health, a loved one or a physical disaster – there’s a familiar tone to the current climate. Swimming in a sea of confusion, fear and foreboding, we’ve been left to fend with only the basics aspects of our lives intact – shelter, food, and family and close friends. Don’t get us wrong, we’re grateful to have a roof over our heads and bounty on our tables, but life as we knew it has been stripped away. The social and professional constructs of the worlds we have spent years envisioning and building have been paused, and we’re in a holding pattern fraught with an overwhelm of emotions. Truth be told, we’re grieving.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book, On Grief and Grieving, describes five common stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance. In thinking about the pandemic and how grief plays a role, we thought we’d examine these stages through the lens of COVID-19 in order to promote consciousness and hopefully, a reprieve from these painful feelings. Dr. Kubler-Ross emphasizes that these stages are often fluid. In other words, we may experience them more than once or stall between two feelings for a while. We might even go through multiple stages simultaneously. Let’s dive in and contextualize the grief of the pandemic.
It’s not hard to remember the shock we felt when we first heard that we couldn’t leave our homes, go to work or see our family and friends. Living our lives without the experiences and activities that define us most felt, and continue to feel, unfathomable and disorienting. Denial is the intellectual and emotional rejection of something that is clear and obvious. These days, denial can be heard in the voices of our youth, claiming that they’re too healthy to get COVID-19, or by those who state that the regular flu is just as deadly as the novel Coronavirus. Denial is actually a survival mechanism, helping to preserve our psychological and emotional wellbeing when realities are too painful to fully feel. It enables us to process little bits of information at a time, so as to avoid overwhelming our system and experiencing too much loss at once.1
Anger is often a mask for other feelings such as sadness. Yet anger is energetic. It can empower us and make us feel stronger instead of vulnerable. This stage of grief often appears in the form of blame, power struggles and rebelliousness. We're currently observing people defiantly protesting Shelter in Place measures, ignoring 6’ distancing mandates or blaming other countries for the epidemic. As our patience wanes and the desire to “get back to normal” increases, we may witness more anger as people start to rebel against stay-at-home measures and socializing restrictions, use politics to defend and rationalize our losses, or even act it out interpersonally at home. Anger is often a more accessible landing place along the grief continuum because it is external - enabling us to avoid having to face difficult, intimate emotions.
Bargaining kicks in when our denial starts to abate and when we’re still not ready to accept our current condition. It is an expression of our desire to exercise control and take action to avoid some of the realities before us. Bargaining is about sustaining an illusion vs. internalizing reality, and it often comes in the form of rationalizations. In the face of COVID-19, we’re hearing people justify spending time with people so long as they wash their hands afterward. Or stating that we’ll be back to normal by Mother’s Day – “there’s no way we’ll still be here come June.” These are not truths. Rather they are attempts to command a sense of power in the presence of powerlessness and protect ourselves from loss.
When reality finally sets it, we’re taken over with hopelessness and gloom. There’s no longer any denial or rationales to protect us, and we find ourselves wallowing in sadness and self-pity. We almost go to the opposite extreme of denial and awfulize our realities, even if glimmers of optimism still exist. These days, despair is showing as we articulate our terror around losing income, investments and becoming destitute, or having dreams dashed and futures forgotten. Many of us are feeling as though our lives are crumbling economically, professionally and identity-wise, despite years of efforts to establish them, and that we may have nothing left when we emerge. Despair is dark, lonely and depressing. It often feels like hitting rock bottom.
When we are ready to face the truth of our reality and surrender to what is, we find ourselves in a state of acceptance. In this stage, we stop fighting the facts or wallowing in doom. Our mind comes to a state of relative ease and begins to engage in problem-solving. We become ready to start dealing with what’s in front of us. As we accept COVID-19, most of us know that we could have it much worse. Practicing gratitude while also allowing acknowledging fear, anxiety and apprehension brings about a more balanced (though not necessarily joyful) existence. Knowing that our behaviors now will serve the collective whole is encouraging. Many of us are finding faith in these moments, trusting that something greater will come forth (aka. clear, smog-free skies!?).
We’ve likely experienced all five of these stages of grief, in one way, shape or form, over the past seven weeks. How could we not? After all, we’re in the heart of the greatest threat to humanity in a century, with testing, treatments and vaccines still a ways off. But conscious awareness is a beautiful, albeit brave, thing. And our hope is that by contextualizing whatever we’re feeling via the framework of grief, we can offer compassion to ourselves and others and better navigate the storm. And maybe, without pressure to put on a happy face in public each day, we can more authentically allow our emotions to come forth. The good news is that we’re all suffering together, and together we will get through it.2 #inittogether #beautyofchange
“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King