Are We Grieving This Properly?
It finally caught up with me.
Last month, my brain and my heart hit critical mass mid-week, and I shut down like a computer. The only parts of me that functioned were my tear ducts. Not just some crying but full on fetal position sobbing.
What’s the matter with you? I asked. Get your shit together.
Then clarity: It’s the pandemic, stupid.
I had to stop working for the remainder of the week to take a mental health break. The gravity of the pandemic won, and recognizing this and respecting its toll was one of the healthiest reckonings I’d experienced in my life.
I’m certainly not alone here.
We associate grief with death. A family member or friend dies, and we grieve that loss. But grief applies to other situations. Nearly four months into coronavirus with no end in sight and cases skyrocketing in America to the tune of at least 40,000 per day, we’ve coped by giving and receiving expressions of empathy and support, and creating new opportunities to apply our professional skill sets.
The terms “uncertainty”, “unprecedented times”, “we’re all in this together”, “we’ll come out of this stronger”, etc. have dominated the discussion. But “grieving” is seldom mentioned. And I get it; our survival instincts compel us to push through, because otherwise, we’ll sink in the quicksand.
But just like losing someone we love, we need to grieve the losses caused by COVID-19 that have destroyed our plans and made our lives emptier.
I’m going to call myself out. In my earlier blog post, We Have to Take this Punch, I didn’t mention grief once. In fact, I haven’t mentioned it in any of my content until now. I also wrote that, “...we were built for this,” which we are not. This isn't pessimism or a knock on the human spirit; it’s acknowledging the cold data of diagnoses, deaths, and the detrimental impacts of confinement.
I’m using the pronoun “we”, but it’s not my place to tell you how to grieve. Instead I’ll share my process and examples--which align with the Kübler-Ross stages of grief model--and hopefully it may serve as a guide for you.
Stage 1: Denial
The initial reaction is to deny that an event is actually happening. I knew that COVID was serious, and I was ready to buy into all of the safety guidelines. However, I immediately latched onto the silver linings:
- This will give me and everyone the chance to slow the hell down and recharge
- Zoom is awesome! No more driving
- E-Learning will be a nice change-of-pace for my kids
- Zoom is awesome! My background will trick people into thinking I’m speaking to them from a luau in Maui
- We’ll get so much Goddamn cleaning done!
- Zoom is awesome! Your face is funny when you freeze
Stage 2: Anger
Anger masks the true source (the pandemic) of emotions and pain.
It irritated me that my kids didn’t swiftly adapt to e-learning, that they just couldn’t follow their damn schedules buried in Google Drive, a platform they’d seldom used. In hindsight, I displaced my frustration with the pandemic and the woeful federal response to it that caused the school-closures and sent our district and teachers scrambling to implement curricula and its execution that no one could have possibly imagined.
It’s worth noting that the name frustration doesn’t do this most complex of emotions justice. Frustration = Rage + Helplessness.
Stage 3: Bargaining
When you are not in control of a situation, you may feel helpless, and it’s not uncommon to try to reclaim control by believing that you can influence outcomes. This is the fallacy of bargaining.
When Cook County, Illinois (where I live), became the country’s epicenter of COVID-19 cases, I thought, I have to do more to stop this. I put pressure on myself to be my neighborhood arbiter of social distancing and felt like I was failing at flattening the curve when a home hosted a get together.
I was dismayed when Governor Pritzker accelerated and loosened the restrictions of Phase 3 of Restore Illinois in May.
“What the hell is he doing?” I yelled at my wife. Then I went into overdrive figuring how I could make him change his mind.
Now we are in Phase 4.
Stage 4: Depression
Hello darkness, my old friend.
As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, the first month of the pandemic was oddly easy for me. I was content, and it made perfect sense: my whole life I’d been preparing for a catastrophic event, and when it finally happened, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was among a sub-cohort of the depressed and anxious having a spa treatment with this.
Then the honeymoon ended.
24/7 togetherness with my young kids, the lack of socialization for all of us, people’s cavalier behaviors about COVID due to idiotic, obtuse, and cynical responses from the White House down to governors and mayors, along with police brutality were the clarion calls for my anxiety and depression to return home.
I’m actually thankful this happened because it forced me to begin the fruitful part of grieving.
Stage 5: Acceptance
I can’t say it any better than Healthline:
“Acceptance is not necessarily a happy or uplifting stage of grief. It doesn’t mean you’ve moved past the grief or loss. It does, however, mean that you’ve accepted it and have come to understand what it means in your life now.”
Here’s what I’ve come to understand:
- This is a stolen summer for my kids. They were excited about full camp sessions and our annual August trip to Michigan.
- Visiting with family and friends outside and six feet apart isn’t the same as hugging and breaking bread at a dining room table
- If the school year begins with the option of in-person or e-learning instruction, we will choose the latter because it makes us more comfortable. But that means our kids may fall further behind academically and suffer from the lack of socialization.
- If it’s true that for every one COVID case there are 10 more that haven’t been reported, then it’s very likely someone in my family will catch it.
- I’d prefer that person be me. I’m confident that I would make a full recovery from the disease, but now it’s reported that you can suffer from secondary lung and heart damage.
- You don’t have to have a mental illness to feel pulverized by your losses incurred by the pandemic.
- Black, Latinx, and American Indian communities are most at risk of getting the disease.
- I don’t know if I’ll ever stop wearing a mask in public or feel safe like I did before this.
I’m going to add a sixth stage: Stubbornness. I’m stubborn because I can’t let go of hope. I can’t let go of hope because the episode that brought me to my knees begat my grieving. I’m better for it, and I hope you will be, too.
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Jul 3, 2020 by