A Pandemic Of Grief

Have you noticed how the volume of your feelings has been turned up over the past few weeks?  We are living in a dystopian landscape none of us could have predicted.  Every single person I have spoken to has described some kind of internal struggle in response to the new (temporary, but we don’t know for how long) reality.

Many are feeling the losses of day to day routine, visiting family and friends, days out in the sunshine and being able to plan ahead. In addition some are also trying to deal with the actual death of a loved one or the loss of a job/income.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross noticed similarities in the way people experience a grieving process and described 5 stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These stages are not linear, we can revisit the stages when a trigger reminds us of our loss. Grief is messy and chaotic.  It can’t be made better by a logical understanding of what we are going through.  However, I have found that helping people normalise their unique experience of loss not only validates their experience but alleviates their fear that they are somehow going mad.  One of the biggest fears for people seems to be that the pain and inner turmoil is a permanent state of being from now on.  Understanding that grief is a process perhaps helps us to notice the glacially slow shifts and changes along the way.

Let’s look at how we might be experiencing the different stages during isolation:

  • Denial – is a way of buffering the loss, otherwise the reality would be overwhelming. There are different forms of denial. Denial of the facts – e.g. “The virus isn’t that dangerous” or “We’re not really at risk”.  Denial of the meaning of the loss – e.g. “I’m not that bothered about seeing friends anyway”.  “It’s like a holiday really”. Denial of the irreversibility of the loss – e.g. continuing to arrange meeting up or going to shops in case they are still open.
  • Anger – this speaks for itself.  You might be experiencing higher levels of anger than usual.  Over the past 2 weeks I have read about people expressing anger at the police for being heavy-handed, health staff for not allowing relatives to be with those in intensive care and shopkeepers for implementing rationing of certain items.
  • Bargaining – Essentially we would do anything for life to return to normal.  Bargaining is often prefaced by “If only…..”.  “If only I could buy hand sanitiser/a mask”.  “If only the scientists could hurry up and find a cure”.  “If only I didn’t meet up with my friend, then I wouldn’t have caught the virus”.  Or even bargaining with our own feelings e.g. “If only I didn’t feel trapped in the house”.
  • Depression – this seems to be a stage many have reached.  The first week of isolation wasn’t too bad as we could get all those unfinished jobs sorted.  Unwatched television series were binge watched, people got creative in the kitchen, there was time to catch up with friends via video.  The enthusiasm of “We’re all in this together” was high.  We barely noticed we were missing having a quick chat with colleagues or popping into the coffee shop as we were so busy.  By the second week we were starting to doubt that this is going to be over in 3 weeks.  We started to notice feelings of sadness creeping in.  We found ourselves crying hearing others stories of pain and loss.  We started to slow down and feel a bit empty.  In week 3 the reality seems to have sunk in.  We are in this for the long haul and the world may never be the same again.  Depression is a normal response to loss.  We have lost our routines and freedom and there are secondary losses as a result, which are unique to us.  
  • Acceptance – This is not acceptance of the reality, more an acceptance of our emotional responses to the reality.  This acceptance is the beginning of things feeling a little easier as we make differences in our routines and roles to incorporate the new norm.  Remember, acceptance is a moving target.  Some days it will feel easier than others.

Aside from responsive grief, another form of grief is anticipatory grief.  This is based on the fear of what we might lose.  The level of fear increases alongside the level of unknowns we are dealing with.  If we are in lockdown with anyone else we are not only dealing with our own grief responses but theirs too.  One person’s denial might be met with another’s anger.

Naming the changes in our emotional state and normalising them are the beginning of managing these challenging times.  Validating our emotions and self-care are helpful also.  Understanding what our secondary losses are (e.g. contact, space, identity, freedom, safety etc) can help us understand which of our needs aren’t being met just now.  It’s normal to have conflicting feelings e.g. I love spending more time with my children and it’s hard.

There are many things I feel grateful for just now and hope that, in amongst the fear and uncertainty, you too are able to take mindful moments to breathe and connect with yourself.