by Emily Suzuki, MA, LAC
How are we as individuals and as a collective experiencing grief? Covid-19 has brought us into unchartered territory. Even as many of us shelter in place, and limit our mobility we feel as though we are navigating ways and places that we have never before had to face. Overwhelming feelings are common right now and need our attention and compassion more than ever.
Everyone is struggling with a loss of normalcy. Our daily routines are turned upside, family, friends and co-workers are missed and each of us is being asked to restructure the ways we spend our time and how we move through the world. Many are mourning loved ones passing. Our sense of safety has been pushed to the edge, and ultimately, we are becoming more intimate with our fears of death and dying.
As we work through this time, it makes sense that we are experiencing the stages of grief. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler outline the stages in their book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The process of grief evolves in its own time and way depending on each individual and circumstance. There’s no clear roadmap. Often, it’s not linear, it can take much longer than we want it to, and it can feel quite messy.
Denial is the first stage. According to Kübler-Ross and Kessler “denial helps us survive the loss.” It gets us through the initial days and weeks of shock and acts as a kind of filter, only allowing us to acknowledge what we’re ready to handle. As much as denial is the act of looking in the opposite direction, there is a wisdom to it too. In an already overwhelmed state, denial allows us to turn towards our grief when we’re ready.
Feeling anger is a sign that there are many other emotions percolating under the surface of grief. In the state of overwhelm and feeling lost, anger is recognizable, and something we can hold onto easily. In fact, too often it’s what sticks and sticks around for a long time. Here, we look externally, for ways to point the finger at someone or something to blame. It’s familiar and easier, than managing the deeper emotions of grief. Anger is also a protector and can point to the things we value and care about and ultimately, what we love and don’t want to lose.
Kübler-Ross and Kessler explain the stage of bargaining as the attempt at a “temporary truce.” In this stage we ask ourselves a lot of “what ifs” and wonder “if only”. We try to negotiate with the pain we’re feeling and can feel a sense of desperation and longing for returning to a way before change and loss. An attachment to our previous sense of normalcy, and in this stage, we really resist the reality of the beginning of a new normal.
Depression arrives when “our attention moves squarely into the present.” This stage is difficult, and feelings of emptiness and hopelessness can arise. It can feel endless, and without light at the end of the tunnel, we feel truly lost at sea. Like every stage, depression takes the time it takes for any given individual. In our society, there is stigma around extended grief. We are expected to wrap up and move on within a certain, very short, period of time, and get back to the day to day. Bereavement is a normal and healthy part of grieving and it is important not to confuse or label it as mental illness.
Finally, in our own time, we experience the stage of acceptance. Here, we begin to acknowledge that there is no going back to before, and we tentatively learn to adjust and reorganize ourselves around this new reality. This doesn’t happen overnight, and maybe only takes the shape of momentary ease but eventually acceptance builds and accumulates into longer stretches of time. Feelings of guilt can come up as we recognize ourselves moving forward, but we begin to trust that we can both honor the absence of what we have lost, while also allowing ourselves to grow and change.
Recognizing that we are ALL in some way experiencing grief and loss during this unusual time, we must turn our attention inward. Looking inside, we can ask ourselves, what am I feeling right now? What have I lost and what am I afraid of losing? This leads us to reflect on what do I love and value? What do I hold most dear and how can I honor them if and when I have to say goodbye? These questions are difficult and uncomfortable, and often quite painful. Grief is a heavy weight to carry, and you do not have to carry it alone. For support and to see how we can support you during this time of loss and transition please call us or read more about our team at Mindful and Multicultural Counseling.