ColumnsCOVID-19 Coverage

Grieve. Accept. Find Meaning.

The stages of grief can be a hopeful guide to growth.

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Whether or not we approve, the “reopening” phase of the response to the coronavirus pandemic is in full swing. Over the past few weeks, we have all come to the slow realization that this is the new normal.

State and local governments wrestle with how businesses and public spaces can resume something approximating normal operations. For those returning to work, near-constant conversations about the number of employees allowed in elevators, waiting areas, and conference rooms dominate our Zoom meetings.

Restaurants place tables at a distance of six feet apart to seat dine-in guests while also maintaining robust curbside pickup and delivery services. And while masks are required in some public spaces and only recommended in others, general adherence to the government recommendations falls far short of what one would expect.

Something Lost

It goes without saying that, in one way or another, we have all been affected by the pandemic. For many, the emotional and psychological toll of COVID-19 has been tremendous. While the specifics vary from person to person, it is clear that we have all suffered loss. As such, one helpful way of thinking about our collective experience is to process it as grief.

Perhaps you have personally experienced loss of health due to a COVID-19 infection. Or maybe you’ve witnessed or cared for a sick family member or friend while experiencing that all-too-familiar sick feeling in the pit of your stomach called worry.

Questions play over and over again on a loop in the mind. Those who have already had COVID-19 ask: How, when, and where did I get COVID-19? Can I get it again? Will the antibodies be enough to protect me, and for how long? Those who remain symptom-free are asking: Will I get it? When will there be a vaccine? How long will I have to wear a mask?

Collectively, we are not only losing sleep, but also our peace of mind and a sense of safety and confidence regarding our health.

Some of us have lost income in this economic downturn due to being furloughed or terminated at work. Unfortunately, as financial hardship walks in the door, out goes our sense of security.

Sadly, many of us know someone who has lost their life due to COVID-19. Even worse, we struggle to shake the mental image of that individual spending their final moments alone in the hospital ICU, physically separated from those who love them most. Grief over the loss of a loved one is compounded by the reality that they are never coming back. There is no return to the way it was before COVID-19.

The Grief Process

Recognizing the ways in which you have experienced loss and allowing yourself space to grieve is an important part of dealing with the emotional toll of the pandemic. In her book On Death and Dying, psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Years later, this model was revised to include a sixth stage of grief, called “finding meaning.”

I recently spoke with a single working mom of two young children about how to occupy her kids over the summer in the absence of school or summer camp. In our conversation, she expressed great distress about the situation (anger), speculated about the circumstances where she might be able to put her kids in a camp if they were to open during late summer (bargaining), and ended her statement with an expression about the overall sadness and despair she was experiencing for the future (depression).

This example illustrates some important points about the stages of grief. Even though the term “stage” might suggest we move decisively from one phase of grief to the next in a linear fashion, the reality is we probably exist in some or all of the stages at one time. It’s quite natural to find ourselves living in acceptance one moment, only to have the disbelief of denial or the sadness of depression descend on us for a period of time.

Cultivating Acceptance

It is necessary for us to cycle through the various points along this path in order to come out on the other side. Perhaps our expectation shouldn’t be that we move quickly to acceptance with a quick “get over it.” Instead, our goal should be to move gradually into acceptance, and simply try to spend more time in that space. We can cultivate acceptance by recognizing that our anger or sadness is an emotional signpost that tells us there is something about the situation that we are still wrestling with.

Ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am still struggling with? Is there some aspect of it that I have some control over? If so, you can begin organizing and planning so that you can mobilize and take action. If there is no identifiable recourse, then gently remind yourself to move into acceptance as a way to reduce your overall stress.

When we find ourselves playing an emotional tug-of-war with the swirl of negative thoughts of grief, anger causes us to pull harder on the rope, while depression saps our strength and pulls us over the line. Acceptance allows us to simply let go of the rope.

Something Gained

The final step of the grief process, finding meaning, is critical. While acceptance functions as an emotional salve, creating meaning from loss gently spurs us into action.

What work can be done to enable financial security or find other employment? How can
I rededicate myself to healthy living? How can I reach out and be of service to others who are in need or are grieving as they experience their own forms of loss? How can I honor those who have been lost?

As we continue to adjust to life in the age of pandemics, there are still opportunities to find meaning. What can you do today to make meaningful change?

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]

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