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This Is No Ordinary Grief

Why embracing change associated with the pandemic is so challenging

Photo by Kristin Meekhof
Source: Photo by Kristin Meekhof

Dr. Elizabeth Kübler- Ross famously explained the Five Stages of Grief™—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in her book "Death and Dying". And while much has been discussed in both the academic and main-stream grief literature about the application of these stages to our current status of living through a pandemic, as a grief author and expert, I believe one of the big reasons people are struggling so much with each of these "stages", if you will, is that what we're enduring is no ordinary grief.

Typically, language helps us to grasp and understand a difficult and stressful concept or situation. When we can label something as "fear" or give it a diagnosis, while we may not like the word assigned to it, clarity ensues. We find a bit of relief in knowing what is causing our heart to race or creating that lump in our throat.

The next step is to put a plan in place. Some of us may seek out an expert to guide us through the diagnosis or look for treatment to alleviate the symptoms if the cause can't be cured. However, in our present situation, there is no reference point for putting into context what continues to unfold. And for some, not having the adequate language to describe the panic and fear creates even more panic and fear. After all, we like to be able to "Google" our remedies and download an app to cease the overwhelm.

The grief and fear associated with unemployment, social distancing, staying-at-home, wearing a mask, and loss of life due to COVID-19 is unlike anything we've experienced. There is no comparison and for some, the word "grief" doesn't begin to describe the heartbreak, isolation, angst, and depression. For our current times, the lexicon typically used to articulate sadness and despair doesn't seem to fit. And this barrier can make it more difficult to accept the changes associated with our current environment. After all, if we can't describe in words what we're feeling to each other or to ourselves it can be hard to feel a breakthrough is coming or get the help we desire.

In healing grief, often the bereaved understand the choices before them to restore their physical and emotional well-being. This may include attending a support group, engaging with loved ones, seeing a therapist, or going outside for exercise. And during the lockdown period and now as we emerge from the stay-at-home orders the choices that were once options for typical in-person healing no longer exist. Millions are unable to return to work as their employment ended and others who long to see their loved ones can't do so because they fear to board a plane or they have to stay-at-home due to a compromised immune system.

Accepting what some are calling the "new normal" will likely include learning a new way to map out grief as the course of healing has dramatically changed. Our former ways of describing loss no longer align. And for many, the new path includes more individual and remote (via cell or video) healing methods. What hasn't ceased is our ability to heal and build resilience.