As the myriad and varied layers of pandemic impact have continued to blanket daily lives across the country and globe, there has been an experience of universal loss. The losses have been individual and collective. We are grieving. Many things. In many ways.
Death is tragic. The first loss that becomes personal and is no longer six degrees removed in a news story can be emotionally staggering and stop someone in their tracks. Life is not the only thing that has been lost. COVID-19 has obliterated many peoples’ sense of control, security, safety and the semblance of predictability they thought they had in their lives. It has upended daily rhythms and routines. People are beginning to recognize how much they relied on these things to stay tethered. Equilibrium was shaken and shattered. Life as we knew it has been turned inside out.
For many people, spring and summer dreams, goals, plans, visions, have been cancelled. The conference you had been selected to present your paper at in June represented more than an event on a calendar. It was about hours of research being recognized. The excitement about the possibility of what could potentially come of new connections at the meeting. The graduation with little traditional pomp and circumstance is a real disappointment. It’s not about the day, the gown, the hat, the tassel, or the sheet cake. It is about celebrating the years, the sleepless nights, the pots of coffee, and all of the times you didn’t think you would ever cross the finish line with people who have been a part of your race. The birth of your first baby with no visitors to gush over the ten new tiny fingers and toes hurts your heart. This was not how you ever pictured your birth experience and first days as a new parent: scared and isolated in a sterile, guarded hospital room. Your cancelled IVF cycle makes you want to vomit—right now repeatedly stabbing your bum with the bag full of syringes that now sit on your counter suddenly doesn’t sound so bad. The job that no longer exists. The fifth birthday party that had no little boys to help eat a dozen cupcakes. The chances you didn’t get. The pictures that won’t be taken. The list of examples is endless. It is all loss.
Grief, even when it does not involve physical death, can be visceral. The emotional experience of grief can vary greatly in intensity. It can be a reaction to a change or loss of many different types of things, some of which are entirely intangible: expectation, possibility, hope. Intangible, or invisible experiences of loss can be lonely. When our experience isn’t on the radar or fully understood by those surrounding us, we can feel lonely. Misattuned responses can result in disenfranchised grief.
Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief first popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Denial. Anger. Depression. Bargaining. Acceptance. You have likely found yourself experiencing some of these things at some point in the last days and weeks.
As a clinician (and, let’s face it, a human), I go against the flow a bit. I tend to reject a stage model of grief. I am uncomfortable with the framework because it signals, on some level, that grief is somehow something that you move through in a linear fashion and eventually complete. This may be true in some cases. Your son will not be scarred that there were no peers witnessing him blowing out his birthday candles in the same way that none of us are in therapy as a result of the death of our first goldfish. However, I think that more often grief is a process that does not have a finish line. It involves a complex amalgam of emotions that crash against someone with a somewhat unpredictable, imprecise pattern. People who are grieving experience different feelings, at different times, to different degrees. No day, no month, no year is exactly the same.
I favor a “task” model to the experience of response to grief. It captures the work of assimilating loss and adapting as we live in the after. J. William Worden developed an excellent framework of four tasks that are a part of the process that follows loss:
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss.
Task 2: Process the pain of the loss
Task 3: Adjust to a world without who (or what) was lost
Task 4: Develop an enduring connection with the person who is deceased in a meaningful way that allows you continue to move forward, unarrested, in your future
We can adopt aspects of this model and apply it to the ways in which we have been, and may be in the future, impacted by the destruction left in the path of the current coronavirus storm. We know that this is happening. It is here. It is our reality. It is impacting us in big and tiny ways. We get to have big and tiny feelings about all of them. It is time to adapt, adjust, and forge forward.
A final consideration for the grief and loss that people may be processing throughout the pandemic are the traps of emotional invalidation and loss comparison. When someone is having a strong reaction to the way in which an aspect of his or her life has been impacted, I often hear an emotional description of the experience quickly followed by the caveat, “But I shouldn’t feel this way. There are people dying.” Yes, there are people dying. It is horrific. At the same time, you also get to feel however you do about the ways in which you have been impacted in your everyday life by drastic measures taken to flatten the curve. Everyone is experiencing effects of quarantine, social distancing, and an economic earthquake. Having strong, natural emotional reactions to your circumstances does not make you spoiled or bratty. It makes you human. You can feel the weight of the tragedy of human death, and you can simultaneously acknowledge, make space for, and permit your own feelings about the ways in which you are impacted. It doesn’t have to be “either—or.”
As a human race, we mourn with those who mourn. Right now, we are grieving together.