Funeral service workers transport a coffin of a victim of COVID-19 in Cisternino, Italy. CNS photo/Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters

Bob Brehl: Grief manifests in a lockdown world

  • April 22, 2020

Throughout this pandemic lockdown, everyone must be going through a range of emotions at various times, from fear and anxiety to frustration and lethargy.

I know I’ve felt all those emotions and more. I was also feeling something else which I couldn’t put my finger on, kind of a fog that refuses to disperse.

Then, to make matters worse, came the horrific news of the senseless and murderous mass shooting in Nova Scotia. The most innocent lives ever taken in Canada during a gun rampage.

What would motivate a person to carry out such evil, especially now in the midst of a global crisis? Thoughts quickly turned to the families and friends of the victims. How will they grieve in a world of social distancing and self-isolation?

It is natural to need others to lean on when we lose loved ones. Grieving in isolation — even virtually via technology — must be that much more difficult.

These questions and thoughts led me back to that emotion, or fog, that I couldn’t put my finger on: I felt this way before, long ago, in my final year of university when my mother passed. After her funeral, I returned to university, which was five hours away from my family. For weeks, perhaps months, I was alone and living in a listless fog.

It lifted only after I spoke to a school counsellor who told me I was in a state of grief over my mother’s death. He gave me something to read by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the renowned psychiatrist and author whose best-selling books in the 1970s were pioneering works on the topic of grief. Indeed, she identified five stages of grief that became known as “Kübler-Ross model.”

Is it grief today, I wondered? I’ve lost no one to COVID-19 and so far no one in my family has contracted the virus. Still, I punched “grief” and “coronavirus” into Google and sure enough, lots came up. Many, many people are feeling grief now.

Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband in 2015 at age 47, is an advocate for talking about loss and for bereavement leave. Grief is a deviation in our lives, she says, and we begin living in “Option B.”

“The entire world is living ‘Option B’ right now,” Sandberg told Business Insider. “Now some people are suffering much more than others. We lost my fiancé’s first cousin, so we’ve had direct death in our family. Some people have health things, some people are much more worried about the economic situation. But I honestly think there’s not a single person who’s not living some form of Option B right now.”

I also came across a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review. It’s an interview with David Kessler, who is the co-author with Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004, of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss.

Kessler calls it “anticipatory grief” we’re all feeling during the pandemic.

“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain,” he tells HBR. “I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this (before). Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this, but all together this is new.”

Understanding grief is important, he says, and we must realize the stages are not linear; they impact people in different ways at different times.

“It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world,” Kessler says.

“There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us.

“There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities.

“There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?

“There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end.

“And finally there’s acceptance: This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

Acceptance is empowering because it gives us a measure of control, he says.

It’s difficult to imagine, but the pandemic offers opportunity, too, and one is a new feeling of collective resilience.

“I think this is going to change us and I hope and want it to change us for the better so that we do more,” Sandberg says. “We give more to strangers, we give more to the people in our lives, and I think we are seeing that, and that is collective resilience.”

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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