During the global pandemic, a palpable sense of collective grief has emerged. Grief expert David Kessler says that grief is actually multiple feelings that we must manage. The classic five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance) apply today, and the practical steps we can take to manage the anxiety. Those include balancing bad thoughts with good; focusing on the present; letting go of things you can’t control; and stocking up on compassion. Kessler also talks about a sixth stage of grief: meaning. After acceptance, he says, we will find meaning in the hard-
We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change, and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?
We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. For example, there is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.
What can individuals do to manage all this grief?
Understanding the stages of grief is a start. The stages of grief aren’t linear and may not happen in any order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. 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, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. For example, I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images.
Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image.
Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness, but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control.
Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. Be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.
One particularly troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-
This is a temporary state. The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. History tells us that. This is survivable. We will survive. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact.
Finding meaning during this unprecedented time is significant. Meaning is what came after acceptance. People are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.
What do you say to someone who’s read all this and is still feeling overwhelmed with grief?
Keep trying. There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. Kessler suggests when you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-
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