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  • Writer's pictureMeg Debski

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Map of Grieving

Updated: May 16, 2020

We are all in the early stages of a collective grief and for many of us we don’t even know it. For some, the grief is obvious and has come in the form of job losses and the inability to be with friends or loved ones, but for others the grief may be less obvious while they are celebrating the fact that they can bypass the get-to-the-office commute and work from home in their pyjamas. We have all, however, lost many aspects of our personal freedom and our ability to connect with other in the ways we value most.

Understanding the stages of grief can help you navigate your way through the next few months. The stages of grief can serve as a map that helps you recognise, not necessarily where you are headed, but where you are at the moment. You see the stages of grief aren’t linear, we often oscillate between stages, revisiting a few or getting stuck on one. I liken it to the maps we could get in primary school where we would learn about different symbols representing things like a post office, a church, a grocery store and the fruiter. If you understood the key, you could understand where you were. Understanding where you are doesn’t mean that you have to move from that place, but it is far more empowering than not understanding where you are and wondering why you can’t buy fruit when you are at the post office.

There are 5 Stages of Grief and each one has a different offering and cost.

Stage 1: Denial

We see denial in those who are not self-isolating when required, those who don’t adhere to social distancing rules, in the parts of us that have felt this wouldn’t affect our own country, and in Donald Trump saying he wants America to “open up and be raring to go by Easter”. Denial offers us the chance to create a space between what we have to come to terms with but are not ready to come to terms with. It can feel like a great emotional protector as you can’t feel flooded by emotions about something when you are denying that it, or the seriousness of it, exists. However, denial costs us the chance to take stock and prepare for the change that is required.

Stage 2: Anger

Anger is a very natural feeling that occurs when our power has been taken away, our options are thwarted, and our lives have been thrown into disarray. We have seen this being acted out in toilet paper trolley wars, news reports from adult children whose aging parents are stuck on cruise ships and reactions to others who are not socially distancing. Anger is a natural state and if you are aware that that is where you are on the map, you can tend to that. Anger is the caretaker of our vulnerable emotions. It offers a perceived strength which can be experienced as a type of antidote to disempowerment. It’s cost however is that it takes a lot of energy to tend to, placate and ensure that it doesn’t ripple out to be a reaction that affects others.

Stage 3: Bargaining

The third stage, bargaining, is a natural follow on to anger. Anger is masking the vulnerable emotions associated with a sense of powerlessness and bargaining is an attempt to regain control. In this stage we can often direct our requests to a higher power. You might promise to ‘work harder and donate to charity’ if only your business can survive the lockdown or ask to ‘be the one who gets the virus”, if anyone in your family had to get it. Bargaining offers us a feeling that we have influence in the change that has occurred, but because we are directing that influence outside of us, it costs us the true, authentic experience of empowerment.

Stage 4: Depression

Depression, like anger, is another stage where you are ambushed by feelings but they are more despondent than hostile. In the depression stage, rather than directing feelings of powerlessness outwards, you direct them inward. You may feel deeply saddened and want to rest and retreat from others. The depression stage can give you respite from feeling overwhelmed or from the feeling of needing to fix a situation you don’t how to fix. This stage offers time to reflect and retreat, but it is not a stage you want to get stuck in as it costs you the ability to find the meaningfulness that can come with the acceptance stage. Routine, exercise and connections with others are important when you are in this stage.

Stage 5: Acceptance

During the acceptance stage you’re not necessarily happy or even ok with where things are at (most of us aren’t going to jump with joy about a virus that has changed our lives so dramatically), but you are willing to accept it for what it is and work with what you have. While the acceptance stage costs you the distance that comes from denying or fighting the situation, it offers you the chance to embrace your new reality and find meaning within it. In the acceptance stage you can find nourishment through self care and aligning your behaviours and goals with your inherent values.

Where are you on the map?

Some people are feeling guilty in their grief journey because they are grieving their local café being closed or their sport club ceasing games for the season, while being acutely aware that their friends have lost their jobs and will maybe lose their homes. For those who might be shaming themselves for their guilt, they are denying themselves the ability to tend to it. The intensity of grief may vary, in degrees, between people but it will still be there.

The collective grief that the world is in at the moment also means that different people will be in different stages at the same time. In relation to the physical impact of the virus on health and lives, Europe, as a whole, is much closer to the acceptance stage than Australia, because it has had longer to work through the stages. Similarly, within the one household there may be a child in the anger stage of not being able to see her friends, a father in the bargaining stage of wanting to secure his job and a mother in the depression stage who has retreated to her room and ‘tuned out’.  Watch how our politicians and leaders work their way through the stages and remember they are not linear, nor does everyone spend the same amount of time in each stage, some people breeze through some stages and stay longer in others.

Just like a bright red P on my map, was the key that let me know I was at the post office when I was in third grade, the feelings and behaviours that come with each of the stages of grief may help you know where you are at the moment, and know where others are at the moment. When you know where you are on the map you can know what you can get from that stage and how you can be kind to and care for yourself within it.  

Let yourself grieve, but know where you are with it. Be kind to your grief, tend to it, and reach out to loved ones and friends and share it. The feelings will come and go in waves but they will eventually transform and you can embrace the meaningfulness that can come with acceptance.

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