What’s grief got to do with it?
Stress, especially unexpected and unprecedented stress, tends to tilt us off our center of calm. It messes with our sense of control in our lives. In the case of social distancing and COVID-19, we’re being asked to stay home and disrupt what our normal daily lives look like.
We’re trying to find a “new normal” and hoping for an end to this period of isolation. We’re looking to regain a normal level of control over our lives. Perhaps, in the midst of all of this, without even realizing it, many people are experiencing a sense of grief.
They might be mourning what their lives used to be like before, and what it might look like in the future. Grief is a natural part of life — and extreme stress tends to activate some elements of grieving.
Who is in control here?
Control has shifted from us to our local, state and federal governances as the world tries to deal with a rapidly spreading disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is telling us that while some can recover from this virus, a lot of people can’t. The agency states that “reported illnesses have ranged from very mild (including some with no reported symptoms) to severe, including illness resulting in death.”
Healthy people may not actually be healthy. They may be ill and not know it. They might be passing on the virus to others, to those who may or may not be able to fight it off. Suddenly, we’ve all become potential targets and harbingers of death. On a daily basis, the CDC is learning new things about COVID-19 and sharing that information with us. Information is in a constant state of flux.
Control — we have some. Our government has some, and the virus has some. Our inner sense of calm doesn’t take well to the loss of control over our own daily lives. So, without realizing it, we begin the journey of grieving.
What does grief look like?
While the stages of grief are not linear, and each stage doesn’t always occur, some elements will show up when we’re dealing with stress. It’s important to note that all the ways of coping with unexpected disruption in our lives is just that: trying to cope.
Not all coping behaviors are helpful. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves: Is what I’m doing and how I’m thinking, helpful right now? Could what I’m about to do right now hurt anyone else? How am I dealing with my own sense of control and my own grief over the abrupt changes in my life?
Now, let’s move on to the stages of grief and some ideas on how to use helpful coping skills.
“This is just another flu. Not many people have died compared to (insert epidemic here). I’m not buying into the whole pandemic thing.” Denial just feels better than being out of control in our choices and in how we may be affected by this virus. Denial still tells us this is no big deal.
Some people feel responsible enough to comply with the CDC’s guidelines. Others exert their inner sense of control and ignore guidelines as they attempt to cope by denying the potential dangers.
Can you be in denial of a danger and responsibly follow the guidelines for social distancing? Yes! Enter Zoom — the new way to party. Why didn’t we think of this before? Bring on the Facebook watch parties and Zoom happy hours. Denial is a way to distance ourselves from feeling powerless (or angry) over our situation.
We’ll see expressions of humor here to diffuse the oncoming reality of our situation. Memes of working in pajamas, “my house is cleaner than ever” and toilet paper jokes are aplenty. While some of the humor and online happy hours may seem callous or flippant, they offer a sense of connection to others and are a more positive way to cope than flocking to public beaches with thousands of others.
“You can’t tell me to stay home. I’m going to the beach with thousands of other people on spring break” (Florida). “I see other people rushing to the store buying up all the toilet paper. I better do that too because they’re going to ruin my life.”
A lot of people are experiencing anger. Anger at being told to stay at home. Anger at not being able to do what we feel we need to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Anger at being told we can’t go to the movies, or dine-in restaurants, or that we can only buy two packages of any products at the store.
Anger also has its humor, albeit an uncomfortable one. Insert memes of people ready to smack you upside the head if you get to the store shelves before they do. Have you seen the video clip of two women in a full on smack-down over a package of toilet paper? Yep, that happened for real.
Anger rears its head in the journey of grief. That anger has ties to our inner sense of safety. We personalize outside events, and the virus, other people, the new rules all conspire to tell us “this is wrong,” or “this isn’t fair to me.”
When we personalize events that are outside our control, we tend to take on a victim mindset. In other words, we become targets of forces outside our control, and anger wells up from within. We need to re-frame our experience from “this is happening to me” to “this is happening, so what can I do now?” That way, we can diffuse some of the anger we feel. We can allow our conversations with one another to take on a solution-based focus, rather than a victim-based focus.
“OK, I’ll play along, maybe this is serious. But can you tell me when it will end? If I do my part and stay home, can I have my life back in two weeks?”
So we watch every news break, walk around with our phones to catch updates and posts on social media, and tell ourselves “this will soon be over, in just another week or two.” We get more comfortable with following health guidelines in the hopes that someone will say, “all clear.”
And humor has its place here. Have you seen social media posts with memes of trading boats or 12 packs of beer for hand sanitizer? Bargaining is trying to make us feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Bargaining is the process of thinking, “if I give you this, will you give me that?” We comply in order to trade for a shorter period of isolation or quarantine. We follow guidelines in order to keep our loved ones safe. But we really want something personal in exchange for our compliance.
We want assurance of reaching the end point of all this chaos. We want a clear indication of when life will get back to normal. Sometimes using humor is enough to pull us up and out of this bargaining phase. Laughter truly is a good medicine. Try it! Be willing to allow others their humor too.
But what if our bargaining doesn’t bring us a clear sense of when we can have our normal lives back? What if we don’t lift ourselves up and out of this bargaining process?
“My daily life has shifted from being out in the world, to being in my home and I’m lonely.” “This won’t end soon.” “What do I do with my time after I finish cleaning and organizing my home (which I’ve been meaning to do for forever)? But then what?” “I really could use a cup of coffee with a friend. And I’m going to run out of money before this is over.”
Depression sets in. You may feel alone or aimless. The CDC’s guidelines call for social isolation. Some cities are on lockdown. Isolation is not a healthy thing in the long run. But what is the difference between “short term” and “long term”? It’s a matter of perspective. People who were already not highly engaged with in-person activities, now have no in-person connections.
Yesterday morning at 5:45 a.m., while standing outside a grocery store, seniors were making sure they were two arm’s length away from one another. The air was abuzz with conversation. A woman near to me made eye contact and said hello. We talked about how cold it was that day. She said, “It’s just so nice to hear someone’s voice.” I could feel her sense of isolation and loneliness, like a heavy weight in my heart.
Depression leaves people feeling tired, lonely and often without options. It’s not about acceptance. It’s about giving up because nothing else seems to be working. That’s when personal connections becomes so highly important. Do you know someone who might need to hear another person’s voice?
Who can you reach out to today to ease their sense of seemingly endless isolation? It could be a loved one, a neighbor or even our own buyers and sellers. People need to know that they’re not alone, that they matter, and that this chaos will eventually sort itself out. Taking positive action does have a measurable impact on depression.
What is acceptance? Is it the same as giving up? Acceptance is a form of surrender, and surrender is not the same as giving up. Giving in to a situation and allowing ourselves to see the things that are within our control and the things that aren’t — that’s acceptance.
But let’s not quibble over semantics. Let’s see how acceptance doesn’t require us to surrender our inner sense of control and calm. In fact, acceptance helps restore our relationship with the things we feel we’ve lost. Accepting a situation does not mean we have to like the situation.
There’s power in accepting the reality of the moment, in taking a deep breath. There’s also power in knowing that we can’t control the virus, but we can control how we respond to changes in our daily lives. In that breath, that moment of knowing, acceptance allows us to form new solutions, whether they be temporary or a permanent part of our new lives.
Have you seen the fun memes on social media about all the people having virtual meetings, dressed for business from the waist up, but in pajamas from the waist down? Humor is our friend. Laughter helps elevate us to a higher perspective.
I’ve never been invited to so many virtual meetings and online lunches before! People are discovering new ways to connect, new ways to do business. Acceptance is where we truly look at what we can do. In acceptance we can find purpose.
Beyond grief, there’s purpose, meaning and gratitude
As humans, we seek meaning in our experiences. We seek purpose in our lives. Massive disruption to that journey can knock us off our center. By acknowledging grief, we can move back to a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning.
A Zoom party isn’t just a form of coping, it’s a form of purposefully connecting for ourselves and on behalf of others. It’s a way of keeping our workflow going. Those phone calls take on new depth, and relationships deepen. Cleaning the house becomes an expression of hope, rather than a frantic stab at normalcy.
And there’s gratitude. No, I’m not grateful that a virus has infected our world and killed unsuspecting people. I’m grateful that many are choosing to flow through their stages of grief and rising above the mayhem of fear to find new ways to connect.
There is no way to answer the question of “what is the purpose of this virus disrupting our lives?” There is no way to truly ascribe meaning to the chaos this has caused. There are ways to find deeper meaning in how we connect with ourselves and with others. There are ways to find purpose in this worldwide crisis with one another.
Meaning and purpose are within us. It is our job to discover them in any situation. And gratitude is a constant theme in that discovery. From a place of gratitude, we can take a deep breath and ask ourselves: What does this say about me as a person? How will I show up in my life today? What purpose is asking to be shared through me today?
Portia Ryan, psychotherapist, naturopathic practitioner and Realtor. She’s also an investor with eXp Realty and owner of The Peak Life, Inc in Flagstaff, Arizona. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.