Thursday, March 4, 2021
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The Stages of Pandemic Grief


In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross released a book entitled “On Death and Dying.“ Her research, which studied primarily terminally ill patients prior to death, identified a series of emotions or reactions in response to loss. Since that time, pop culture and the masses have attempted to apply those stages to everything from loss of a pet to becoming an empty nest parent.

I don’t know if the stages of grief in terminally ill patients as outlined by Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – apply outside of her study but I do know that my feelings and emotions about this COVID pandemic have been and continue to feel like a roller coaster.

In the early days of the virus shut-down there was almost an excitement or novelty to it. Locked in our houses. Stocking up on groceries. Tiger King. The quest for toilet paper. Zoom calls and virtual happy hours with our kids and our friends. Puzzles and new recipes and TikTok dances. The virus at that time seemed pretty far away.

I think we were in denial.

We got through those initial weeks and months. Birdwatching. Reading. House repairs. Staying connected with others as best we could using technology or social distancing. We had snow in May. I hated not having face-to-face contact with my students but, at least for the interim, most of us did what we could and hoped that this was just for the short term.

Naively, we thought it would be over soon.

In those initial weeks, we saw a lot of action. Parents and families cleverly figuring out how to make it all work. Volunteer efforts coming together to feed our first responder heroes and to try to save restaurants. Unique ideas for how to offer their services from businesses trying to stay in the black. Neighbors helping neighbors. Our elected officials coming together to vote to support financial aid to families and to businesses to help them stay afloat. The novelty of the virus became our common enemy.

And then we hit the anger stage.

Weeks turned into months and the news wasn’t getting better. The rhetoric in the news and on social media started to heat up. When people become angry, they lash out. The virus and our reaction to it has become part of the political discourse. To wear or not wear a mask has been linked to the way people vote. Anyone in authority who makes a statement is immediately hit with a barrage of political accusations.

Finally, all of the counties in Pennsylvania were given the thumbs up to “go green.” We are still encouraged to stay at home if we don’t have to go out. Restaurants and other tourism entities tried to adjust by shifting their businesses outside. They aren’t counting as we go into grocery stores any more.  Businesses are starting to open their doors. Families are peeking out of their houses.

It’s pretty clear, however, that life as we knew it is gone.

The looming fear that we could all be shut in again never seems to go away. Anger is a common reaction to both grief and to stress.

Look at what’s happening at Penn State. In a noble attempt to try to make all of their constituencies happy, the university announced that Penn State will re-open for some kind of in-person interactions in the fall semester while at the same time telling faculty that they can make the decision to teach in the way that feels best for their individual situation. Students and their parents who learn that most of their classes will be delivered remotely are outraged. At the same time, a group of approximately 1,100 of the almost 7,000 faculty across the Penn State system sign a petition sign a petition demanding that they be included in the decision making process, regular raises for faculty and staff, and that they be allowed to teach in the way that feels best for their individual situation.   

Grief, like any emotion, doesn’t always manifest in rational thinking. Young people are angry that they aren’t going to get a college experience but the documented outbreaks from parties where people weren’t social distancing or wearing masks shows a level of denial. The anger at the nameless, faceless “university administration” who are also having to deal with families and personal health and for whom a virus of this magnitude has never been seen in our lifetimes is, while seemingly tone deaf, obviously rooted in fear and uncertainty. 

One of the criticisms of the original Kübler-Ross hypothesis related to the stages of grief was that people tried to apply those stages to all kinds of loss. People also assumed that the stages were linear. Interpretations of the research tried to say that once a person goes through one stage they are done with that one and can move on to the next. Researchers have since concluded that how we respond to grief is very individual, may not follow a pattern and usually jumps  back and forth among reactions depending on numerous factors.

I find myself at times falling into “It is what it is and we can’t do anything about it,” while at the same time being incredibly sad. Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance? Who knows? 

Our daughter’s wedding rescheduled with hopes next year will be better. Planning for a semester where I won’t be in a classroom with my students. My friends losing their jobs. Watching neighbors struggle with financial issues, work-related child care worries and family members testing positive. Our vibrant college community under strain with the possibility of collapse if things don’t take a turn soon. People I know truly suffering from the virus. Losing the first Penn State student to the virus.  

Not seeing my mother at the facility where she lives for over four months.   

This is definitely grief, regardless of how it fits into the tidy boxes or stages. We as a society are grieving. The future holds so many questions and unknowns. We long for the days when getting together with friends or a hug was something we took for granted.

Each of us, on our own path, will respond, react and process these emotions differently.

The best we can do right now is to hold space for each other. Stay in the present. Give people time to figure it out without judgment or without wanting something in return. Let go of needing to fix or offer solutions when people express their hurt. Listen. Give each other the space and empathy and compassion that we all need.

We will only get through this if we do it together.