A common theme that I hear from all sectors on campus that I work with, including students, staff and faculty, is that of trying to come to “accept” the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because so much of how life has changed involves the loss of things we love – being with friends up close with our full faces showing, traveling to cities and countries far and wide, going to parties inside of buildings, attending concerts, etc. – it may be helpful to think of a framework for living with this “loss” in the same way that we think of it when losing a loved one.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, is famous for identifying five stages in dealing with loss in her book, On Death and Dying. The stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This model was the result of many interviews with dying patients and she saw a pattern from their common emotional experiences. The model is helpful when people feel like they won’t be able to move from a trapped and negative feeling, say ‘anger,’ to a feeling of release, which is ‘acceptance.’ This doesn’t mean that we are happy with the state of affairs, but rather that we are able to be mindful and present in our lives without being trapped in a negative, or depressive, state. In today’s situation, we can use this as a way to enjoy happiness in spite of the restrictions that the pandemic has placed on us. Also, this framework is not prescriptive, but descriptive. We may not move lock-step from one to the next, but will often experience all of them.
A short explanation of each stage might be helpful.
Denial: This helps you cope and survive the event that is causing you grief. By denying it, the impact of the hurtful situation is lessened. Your body is telling it to go away until you are ready to handle it.
Anger: You need someone or something to be mad at, which makes you feel better. Blaming the pandemic on something exterior to you gives you a focus, an enemy, and something to “kick.” It helps in the short term and it is a hopefully temporary reaction to a situation that causes you grief.
Bargaining: This is the stage where you say that you’ll make a change in your life as long as the thing that’s causing you pain will go away. Somehow you think that you can get away from the grief by this negotiation. People do this in the face of a serious situation, such as a pet dying, by saying that they will never act hatefully towards a family member again as long as the pet lives. This, too, is a common step.
Depression: The stage when you feel sad, lost, unmotivated, and practically hopeless. Often you don’t reach out to friends or family, you stay in bed too long, and you can’t seem to find anything to feel happy or hopeful about. It is a sad, lonely phase to be in but it, too, often happens with grief.
Acceptance: When you are in this stage, you say to yourself that you are going to deal with the situation as best you can, you will live your life fully and with as much happiness as possible, and you re-adjust your lens and your attitude. You learn to live with the new reality and find goodness yet again.
A thanatologist and author, David Kessler, who co-wrote books with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross after she had suffered a number of strokes and was facing her own death, added a sixth stage to this framework of grief, that of “Finding Meaning.” By adding that, he found that it allowed for greater healing.
I do find that I am more grateful for little things these days and look forward to when we can rip these masks off our faces and smile at one another again. It will happen and we will be stronger for it all.