Fittingly, I’m writing this on the 11th anniversary of my dad’s death. That day was the start of my journey with grief, and it’s been a winding road ever since.
I’ve come to believe that grief is what we feel over the death of something.
It doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a relationship, a business, a dream.
Collectively, as the world adjusts to the COVID19 lockdown, we are collectively going through grief. Grief for the freedoms we have always taken for granted, grief for the loss of physical space, grief for the world we used to know.
At the same time, there’s a movement that suggests that this time is wasted unless we come out of it more productive and more skilled than before. For some people (overfunctioners, like me), achievement will be your go to response in this time of grief and worry and uncertainty. Other people (underfunctioners) will become less capable.
Both types of people will experience grief, but may not realise that’s what it is.
One of the leading experts in the field of grief is Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who devised the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, a five-stage portrayal of grief. Despite Elisabeth’s urging that people shouldn’t see her grief cycle as a black and white, formulaic prescription, that’s exactly what a lot of people do.
The grief cycle is hugely helpful, but it is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.
The five stages are:
- Denial: this can’t happen!
- Anger: how dare this happen!
- Bargaining: I’ll let this happen so long as it’s cleared up by next week
- Depression: I cannot survive this happening
- Acceptance: this is happening
Collectively, we’re moving through the grief cycle as we enter lockdown and adjust to it.
Some people will have an easier time of this than others, depending on all kinds of things. Those people who were already experiencing mental health problems may not have the foundation in place to allow them much perspective. I’ve been giving thanks every day for having outdoor space and good weather. Here in England, that’s not something we can take for granted in March or April, and I know that lockdown will be harder for those families who have no garden or awful weather.
I like the wave of the image above because it’s an accurate representation of grief. Things don’t get better one day and keep getting better and better. You might have a good day and then a really awful one. It’s easy to have that first good day and think you’re out of the woods. Expecting things to get hard again will lessen the shock if it happens.
Whatever stage of the grief cycle you’re at, there are things that can help. Here are a few suggestions:
- Open up. Don’t suffer in silence. Technology means that this is the best time in history for a lockdown. You can text and call and video chat and blog. Isolation in 2020 isn’t that isolated, really. And yet, a lot of us reach for self-isolation at the times when we most need to reach out for support. Can you choose a friend or relative and make a pact to check on each other every day, by text or call or whatever?
- Gratitude. Each morning and night, list three things you’re grateful for. This isn’t some woo-woo thing of pretending that everything is wonderful, but acknowledging the blessings in your life. Perhaps you have a garden too – hallelujah. Maybe you have high-speed internet. Maybe your spouse is splitting the day into childcare sections so you can both keep up with work. I’ve been really interested in noticing how my gratitude at this time is for life’s simple pleasures; quality time with my daughter, home cooked meals, mornings without the busy pace of getting ready for a 7.30am school bus.
- Journal. Journalling is opening up to yourself. It allows you to go deeper than you might be comfortable to do with friends. I find myself a bit of a bad weather journal keeper – I usually only do it when things are tough and I need to make sense of my thoughts. The safe space of a blank sheet of paper can really help you work out your feelings.
- Be kind to yourself. If you are struggling, reduce the expectations you have of yourself. I’d always suggest that you keep up with basic hygiene, because everyone feels better after a shower, but other than those basic survival tasks, maybe you can expect less of yourself as you cycle through grief. Have a hot bath, go for a walk, listen to your favourite podcast, reach out to an old friend. On the days when my anxiety is high, I’ve been playing Scrabble Go! online.
- Name your stage. Check in with your feelings and name the stage you’re at. Language is the key to helping you understand your feelings, and your behaviour. You can easily waste a day snapping at your loved ones without realising that you’re at the anger stage of grief. Once you realise that, you can be open about it and ask for help. Maybe you can put on some angry music and sing (or shout) along. Naming feelings is so important, and yet many of us never learn this skill. I’m working on this with my daughter right now and was so proud of her this week when she came into my room, crying, and told me “I just don’t know what’s going on with me today, I feel sad and I don’t know why”. Once you name it, you can handle it.
There is a sixth stage of grief, as explained by David Kessler. This stage is finding meaning.
The danger with finding meaning? People try to skip the hard five stages and get straight to the sixth. You can’t race your way to this sixth stage.
I expect that collectively and individually we will find meaning from the current crisis and lockdown. People will review their lives and consider what they want to return to and what they want to change. Industries will be forever altered. Careers will be lost. Skills will be valued differently.
Employers will be held to account for their behaviour during the crisis. I predict a world where interviewees ask companies, what did you do to look after your staff during the Coronavirus pandemic?
People will retrain, go back to school, never return to work, give up plans to retire early.
You will, when the time comes, maybe look back over your life and ask whether you were living the life you wanted to, or a life you’d stumbled into. You’ll ask whether your life had meaning, whether it had passion. And if it didn’t, maybe you’ll make some changes.
I know that I will.
But, first, work through the grief. And understand that everyone else is doing the same. That relative who keeps snapping? Your friend who plays the comparative suffering game? Your child who has started wetting the bed again?
They’re all dealing with grief, in the best way they can.
Help yourself, and help them.