We are currently dealing with a crisis different than anything we’ve experienced before. Overall, we’re doing an incredible job. Still, I know individually, most of us are struggling with heightened anxiety, fear, and loneliness. We may feel overwhelmed as our previous methods of coping and finding connection disappeared almost overnight. We may feel at a loss to make sense of what’s going on, and we may struggle to explain the situation to our children. Several of my clients are struggling to process the reaction of others to the situation.
So what do we do?
First of all, give yourself some grace. This is new for all of us. We don’t know how to handle this, and each of us is doing our best to make sense of the new world we’ve suddenly found ourselves living in. Each of us copes in different ways.
Understanding the grief process may be helpful. The first stage of grief is shock or denial. Feeling shock or being in denial doesn’t mean we’re weak. It’s necessary. It gives us time to adjust somewhat so we can make it through the early stages of what we’re dealing with. In this stage, we may function on auto-pilot (those are the people who just do what they are told to do). We may pretend nothing’s wrong (those are the people who downplay the situation and fight against changing their behaviors). Our survival instincts may kick in (those are the people who are rushing to make sure they have every possible need covered). We may have a combination of two of these, or even all three of them, depending on the day. Often it’s next to impossible to understand the enormity of something like this. We don’t have any context to make sense of it.
The next three stages of grief are anger, depression, and bargaining. The last stage is acceptance. Grief isn’t a linear process. We don’t move from stage one to stage two to stage three, etc. We start with lots of stage one (shock/denial) and experience a mess of all five in the middle, moving towards more acceptance. By the end, it’s mostly acceptance, with the other four stages only happening very occasionally.
Anger is essential to processing through something. Anger is the tool we use to acknowledge the way something affects us. It also is how we identify the power we have over the situation to change it, so we don’t get hurt (or hurt others, or both) again. Anger can be at others, at ourselves, at God (or our Higher Power, or fate, or life). To use our anger, we need to lean into it. That means to let ourselves feel it in a way that is safe for us and safe for others. Different people and different situations often require different methods of “leaning into” anger. Sometimes we may need to vent to someone. If you use this tool, make sure you pick someone who won’t make the situation worse, either by escalating your emotions or by hanging onto the anger longer than you do. Sometimes we need to get the energy behind the anger out. Often physical activities help with this: punching a punching bag, running, ripping up a phone book, crumbling crackers, hitting a bag of ice with a mallet, or hitting a tire with a sledgehammer (careful – it can make the sledgehammer bounce!) can be helpful. Sometimes we need something that will help us feel the emotion. In those cases, music may be useful. Art is another way to express emotion. Writing in an unfiltered way may help, too.
Once the energy behind anger has been released, we often realize that what’s behind the anger is sadness or depression. This is feeling the weight of the loss without the energy that makes us fight against it. This is just as important to allow yourself to feel as the other stages of grief. It can make us feel like we are drowning though, so we need to work to develop ways to allow ourselves to experience it, but not get lost in it. We can give ourselves a time limit (i.e., I’m going to curl up in a ball and cry for an hour, then get up and do something). We can also work to process through it when we feel it. Writing can be helpful. Music may be helpful as well. When we allow ourselves to feel something, we walk through it, which means it ends eventually. Emotions aren’t bad or good. They just ARE. They give us information about something we experienced.
Bargaining is a stage of grief that many people are confused about. Basically, it’s the “what ifs.” Our brain tries to come up with ways to rewrite the story, so the ending is different. This often leads us to beat ourselves up or to develop resentment towards others. It may spark anger or depression (remember, this isn’t a linear process – we go through each stage multiple times throughout the process). Realize this stage of grief can be used to identify how you can change things in the future, and what you may be able to do about what you went through. It can help you identify boundaries you need to create and/or reinforce.
The last stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance is NOT “I’m ok with this.” Acceptance is “this is what it is, and this is what I’m going to do with it.” Acceptance is like the Serenity Prayer; it helps us see what we can change and have the courage to make those changes, and also see what we can’t change and have the tools to deal with that powerlessness.
As we deal with being part of a pandemic, we’re dealing with many losses. The loss of our current way of life, of the plans we’ve made, of much of the security we felt. Let yourself grieve. Reach out to others through phone, text, video calls, or even things like conversations through car windows across a parking space. If social media is helpful and provides you with a sense of connection, use it. If it overwhelms and depresses you, avoid it. Figure out what tools are right for you to work through the stages of grief you’re experiencing.
And as we move through those stages, we’ll also find that we can see the good in what’s happening. I loved the video of people in Italy singing with each other and one of people in Boston doing the same with “Sweet Caroline.” People are reaching out in so many ways to each other. Some websites have waived fees, so material can be accessed for free. People are offering free art lessons or ballet lessons. I’ve heard stories of people going “out” to restaurants, getting take out, and sitting in the parking lot with their windows down, talking to people in other cars (at least six feet away). Stores are offering free supplies to make face masks for local healthcare workers. One of the local police departments is picking one small restaurant each day and buying meals for all their officers from that restaurant, to help the restaurants weather this situation.
Let yourself feel your grief. Give yourself a chance to process through it. Then use that information to help you move forward. When the waves of grief (or little splashes, or huge whirlpools) come up again, process through those, then move forward again. Reach out for help when you need it. We can and will make it through this!