Written by Emily Vliek, LMSW
Emily is a licensed clinical social worker and a therapist at Therapy Today. She has extensive experience in the field of grief: she worked in hospice and end-of-life care for nearly 10 years and has provided home-based care on a multi-disciplinary team providing support to those who were aging or with chronic illness. She now provides outpatient therapy and among other specialties, provides grief counseling with a passion for helping her clients build resiliency and develop meaningful coping mechanisms in response to difficult situations and losses.
All of us have had to transition to a new normal since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and like many of you reading this, I too had difficulty adjusting. At the beginning of the quarantine I saw an article on social media titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief” by Scott Berinato. His words rang true for this collective experience we are all experiencing as individuals. The article references David Kessler, a grief expert, who co-wrote “On Death and Dying: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss” along with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I highly recommend everyone read this article. Mr. Kessler provides helpful observations and recommendations on this time of quarantine and ways to cope. I realize we traditionally think of grief as the intense sorrow from losing someone significant in our lives, however there are many other ways grief is present in our lives besides the death of ones we love, especially now.
As a reminder, Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As Mr. Kessler reminds us in this interview, the stages of grief are not sequential, nor are they feelings we experience for one period of time. They are not things to be completed or mastered before moving onto the next.
As I reflect on my own experience in March, I see now that parts of my thinking could be labeled as denial. I thought, “This doesn’t really need to affect our family. We are young. We have kids,” who at that point, weren’t known to be affected by the virus. “We can still go on Spring Break!” “We know how to be careful and wash our hands!” I even thought, “I don’t need a mask! That’s a little too over the top!” I was finding ways that this virus would not affect my life. When I picked my kids up from school that Friday in March, I never imagined that they would not be returning to school to finish their school years. Experiencing denial is our first way of protecting ourselves against a shocking loss, and it is normal.
Another element of my own life that stood out as grieving after reading this article was bargaining. I found myself thinking, “I will do this quarantine until the end of April, but then I want to know I’m done!” Or, “I will homeschool my kids this year, but I better be able to send them back to school in the fall!” and, “I will quarantine in the spring, but when summer comes, I will go through with all of my plans and traditions as I usually do!” It is normal to attempt to set limits on our suffering.
While we know these current changes are temporary, many of us experience depression from feeling that our intense pain and sadness has no foreseeable end. We cannot “bring back” our old, normal lives, similarly to how we cannot bring back loved ones who we so dearly miss and long for. My own sadness often shows up as grief for my kids. They are now missing a part of their social lives and their identities apart from our family. They are missing the end of their academic and athletic years. They are losing valuable opportunities to make memories. Everyone has lost some part of their life to this quarantine, whether it was a vacation they were really looking forward to, a job they enjoyed that they have lost or that has transformed to a new entity, an event they have worked hard to organize, and so many others. Many in our country have lost loved ones during this time, as well as their ability to memorialize them through valued end-of-life traditions, such as funeral services, or celebrations of life. Each of us have had losses that affect our lives, and we are sad as we mourn together.
As the pandemic has progressed, I can see more ways the phases of grief have emerged. I see it in a variety of ways with my clients’ lives. I have clients who were anticipating celebrating a large achievement such as graduating from MSU, obtaining their Ph.D., or completing law school. They are now grieving and observing the loss of celebration or the ability to mark this achievement as they were anticipating. Anger is another feeling that is appropriate. We are angry that we don’t have control over all of these changes, and that these experiences were “taken away” from us. Many people’s professions and vocations as they once knew them have been so drastically changed as they have transitioned to online platforms, which have created new challenges, and these can be very frustrating. We can also be angry and easily irritable about the smaller, daily losses we accumulate in quarantine. We can be easily angered by a small change to our day to day, but that small change is on top of many changes and adjustments we’ve been making over the past 8-9 weeks. We are allowed to have our anger, and it is important that we give ourselves permission to experience it.
The final phase of grief, according to the model by Kubler-Ross, is “acceptance.” I’m not really sure what acceptance looks like today. Maybe it’s because the word seems to imply, “I condone these changes.” In its most basic form, acceptance may be simply acknowledging that a global pandemic is happening; that people in this world are responding to it in a variety of ways, and we cannot change it. In the article, Kessler talks about the importance of finding meaning following acceptance. I enjoy hearing how my clients are finding meaning in their daily lives now. I think it’s important to remember that finding meaning is not a state that people arrive and stay in. It seems to be more of a fluid ability to notice moments that bring meaning. The inability to maintain a state of noticing meaning and acceptance is not failure; it is a hallmark of the human experience. Life is changing. Living is grieving. And like every grief wave, no matter how tall, powerful, or overwhelming – it will recede, and we will get through this.
- Coronavirus and Grief: Everything You Need to Know – A compilation of resources available for managing grief during this time
- Ele’s Place: A healing center for grieving children, teens, young adults, and their families, with four locations around the State of Michigan
- GriefShare.org: A website to find grief support groups near you – a healing center for grieving children, teens, young adults, and their families, with four locations around the State of Michigan
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line: Text “TALK” to 741741
That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief: