What is grief, really? We know we feel it when someone we love dies. We feel bereft in a world that no longer contains their physical presence. This kind of wrenching away of something so fundamental to our world view is deeply shocking. Even when we know someone is dying, the actual fact of their death shakes our paradigm in ways we couldn't have imagined or described. How can we have words for something we've never known before?
The corona virus pandemic has changed our paradigm, shaken us to the core. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, well-known for her ground-breaking analyses of death, dying, and grief, described grief in terms of five stages, or qualities. These aren't necessarily linear, but instead point to a number of qualities and experiences that comprise some of the common threads of the tapestry of grief. The first one she noted is called denial.
Denial isn't a conscious choice. We just can't believe it, because we have nothing in our experience to compare it to. “He can't really be gone.” “This can't really be happening.” “My world will stay the same, ultimately.” It reminds me of the story of the indigenous people not seeing the arrival of western ships because they had no concept to fit them into. Whether or not that's true (probably not), I know that I can look right past something if my idea of what I'm looking for is incorrect. And that I can only identify a few stars, or cloud patterns, or flowers, whereas experts in these areas see vastly more.
So it's normal to deny the change, at first. The gradual sinking in of the new reality is existentially terrifying, a form of death: death of our familiar reality. We grieve for the loss of the person or circumstance that was so much an interwoven part of our reality, a reality so imbedded in us that we took it for granted. It's natural to be in denial of such a deep change, to feel deep down that it just can't really be happening.
But the power of the change is unstoppable, like the movement of a massive glacier that changes the terrain and the climate and subsumes everything in its wake. So we freak out and get angry, at our powerlessness, at our feeling of victimhood, at the injustice of life. And it's natural to try to place that blame on something: God, ourselves, the government, China, whatever. Some of the anger is logical, but the out-of-control anger is an unconscious reaction, natural but not really helpful.
Once it starts to sink in a bit more, the next stage is to bargain. “Okay, the virus is here, but if I'm careful I'll get through it and things will go back to normal.” We've begun to understand the situation intellectually, but we still don't really get the profundity of the change. Nonetheless, it keeps coming, no matter what. It's hard to believe we can't do more to ward off this fearful transformation.
Then comes sadness. The person we lost, the lifestyle we lost, the financial security, hugs from our grandchildren, drinks with friends, not to mention the world as we knew it – it's just sad, heartbreaking, traumatic, devastating. These are feelings to pay attention to, to be tender with and to honor. It's terribly sad. It's normal to feel sad, and it's important to be aware of it.
Kübler-Ross calls the fifth stage acceptance. Even if we can't entirely grasp the immensity of this shift in our reality, we understand that it's happening and that we need to figure out what to do, how to go forward. The adult part of us accepts that we have no power to reverse the glacier, or bring our loved one back to life. In order to keep on living, we have no choice but to figure out our next steps. This is still just part of the tapestry of grief, which is filled with the richness of all of these five qualities, weaving in and out of each other and creating this painful, poignant world.
And then there's also joy, connection, and love. They are also part of the tapestry. There are the stories of human bravery and compassion, and the funny faces our grandchildren make on FaceTime, and the kindness we feel from our friends and co-workers. There are so many things that make up this beautiful and mysterious tapestry of our lives. It takes courage to live in this ever-changing world, now more than ever.