Stages of grief during a pandemic

Among the many things we have in common with the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, one is the roller coaster of emotions we all have experienced since the first reported case of the virus showed up in Washington state. 

One day you feel like you’re thriving in isolation. The next, you have no desire to get any work done or get out of bed. 

A few convincing explanations for this global phenomenon have surfaced. Aside from the obvious fear most of us feel, and the difficulty that has come along with the transition to a radically different lifestyle, there are likely other things happening in our brain that make us feel this major up and down feeling. One of the hypotheses has stood out to me. 

The Five Stages of Grief, popularized by Elizabeth Kübler Ross and David Kessler, have been cited several times to explain how we all have felt saying goodbye to our lives for these many weeks where it feels like we’ve lost time and missed out on important plans. Many people have said that we’re grieving the life we once had, our sense of stability, our plans and missing out on things we were looking forward to. If this is true, then the Stages of Grief are certainly applicable when it comes to explaining the roller coaster of emotions. 

Denial, the first stage, is easy to find. People saying that the virus isn’t even as bad as the flu so they don’t understand what all of the commotion is about is one example. Sometimes, it disguises itself as the way people make jokes about being in quarantine and how they’re thankful to be getting free time-off. Any way to emotionally reject your reality can be a way of denying it. 

The second stage, anger, a lot of people feel as things get canceled and feelings of uncertainty begin to settle in. People abruptly fired from their job and taking to social media to complain about it, or people trying to find someone to blame — like China or President Donald Trump — is an example of anger. 

While anger is often seen as being extremely unproductive, many people say that anger is actually a secondary emotion, most often motivated by fear. For instance, if an animal feels threatened, they will act out aggressively. Humans do this too but in a more social way. For instance, when someone is angry that they lost their job, they are most likely afraid of their financial situation. 

Bargaining happens when people carry out small indulgences that they aren’t supposed to — like a frivolous Target trip — and justify it by saying that they’ve been doing everything right and wanted just this one thing. Another way people bargain during this time is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, like following a daily routine similar to their lives before they were on lockdown, or shopping online for things to wear once things are normal again. People also could be making concrete plans, such as buying concert tickets or scheduling a wedding, for a day a few months away. 

Then, the depression phase happens. This is something that most of us have felt many times throughout the pandemic. The feeling of hopelessness, lack of motivation, or like quarantine will never end. When the gravity of the impact COVID-19 has had on the world sets in, or you start to realize all of the ways this could affect you, you could start to feel depressed.

Then there’s the silver lining phase — acceptance. Where you come to terms with reality and actually start to embrace quarantine. You might not be fully “happy” or back to normal, but you aren’t taking desperate measures to try and avoid the situation anymore. You stop the frivolous Target trips, the blaming and reducing the virus to not being worse than the flu. You accept your new normal and feel prepared to keep moving onward. 

The important thing about these phases is that they are not linear. You can move through all of them and reach a point of acceptance and then three days later, be back to square one. Things like seeing a new press conference, driving past your gym, or getting more news of things being canceled can trigger a regression back to the previous phases. You must get through all of these to heal when it comes to grief, but there is no set duration for how long you’ll be in each, and the order often varies. 

Grief certainly is probably the first explanation you have for why your mental health has been on the fritz since the beginning of March. And while there’s a lot of other things that definitely could be causing you stress right now, it’s worth learning about these different phases to think about why you’re feeling the way you are right now. 

We’re grieving a lot of loss right now on top of everything else, and it’s not easy for anyone. Everybody is dealing with different secondary effects from the pandemic. It’s more important now than it has ever been to take care of yourself and look out for the ones you love.