My daughter is an executive coach and a counselor and sent me an article this week in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. It is well worth reading because it connects to something around the edges of this pandemic that we bypass in the adrenaline rush to survive and find answers. Meanwhile, fear and panic, the threats of economic ruin and the very real terror of possibly passing a disease on unwittingly to others has weighed on us all.
Business owners who were riding a wave of prosperity a short time ago now sit at a social distance, wondering how long they can hold on to see things going again. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers live under the constant strain of a new “abnormal.” The public at large is being asked not to touch, to hug, to embrace their newborns and grandchildren and one another. Rationally, we know we’ll get through this particular iteration, but something deep and irreversible has come one us. I think of my own grandchildren, wrenched away from classmates and the love of a teacher and suddenly, inexplicably, sent of spring break without end.
Berinato interviewed David Kessler, a colleague of the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who created the Stages of Grief framework for understanding what people go through as they’re dying. She and others extrapolated the five stages—denial, anger, depression
bargaining, and acceptance—as a way to understand what those who have lost go through. Kessler suggested that grief is very present in this moment, most especially anticipatory grief, that is, knowing that we see a loss coming now. What had been familiar and dependable now has been shaken, and we are left with a sense of devastation and loss in its wake.
Kubler-Ross’ stages can be misleading. It describes feelings and emotions people experience accurately, but the notion of “stages” of grieving has not been validated by research. Kessler acknowledges this and says that “the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order.” I am not a researcher, but I am a pastor of forty-one years now, and we work among grief as much as any. Some work has indicated that grief may be messier than stages. There really are wide varieties in how people experience and move through grief. What follows is all of the above—depression, sadness, anger, anxiety, a desire to flee and many more. It goes on for a long time after a death, even the most “natural,” if you count losing elders that way. As one writer put it, no two people do it exactly the same, there is no magical “closure” up ahead when we’re done with it, and “moving on” is not a goal.
A parishioner in a former church said, “Pastor, I don’t think I’m doing this grief thing correctly.” She was in her late seventies. He beloved husband had died from an asthma attack. She was stoic for months and could not talk about it. I said, “What makes you think so?” And she told me all that she had read and what people had said about how she would feel. My answer was this: “It’s all right. My experience is that when you are ready to experience these emotions you will.” A month later she saw me downtown and said, “You were right.”
All of that is to say, though, that you ignore what you’re feeling at your own peril. It can send you down into the abyss of sadness and depression. It may seem disconnected to the words you use to talk to yourself. And this lack of predictability is exactly why it is perilous. If we could mark sadness and grief as clearly as going up a ladder we could know where we are. What is so maddening is that we can move through a time of anger, think we’re done with it, and boom, it sneaks up again one day, utterly unexpected.
Kessler has some excellent suggestions for this:
- Find balance in the things you’re thinking
- If your grief is about what is up ahead, “come into the present.” Be here where you are instead of the “what ifs” up ahead.
- Work on letting go of what you can’t control.
- Stock up on compassion. I liked this one. It’s a time to cut each other some slack.
A lot of slack. That’s the problem with social media—people can express all their emotions and post them and then a feedback loop just keeps the negative emotion going around. Maybe we need to all take a little rest from helping each other straighten out our ideas. People are going through a hard enough time as it is. Maybe a little “social media distancing” sometime in your day.
One of the most consistent issues religion has dealt with and the Christian church in my tradition (and our Jewish spiritual predecessors) is sustaining one another through the devastation of losses. Knowing how to do it is not the same as experiencing, but we do know some things about helping. Grief has to be named and owned before we can move through it. You can’t force it, but neither can you pretend it isn’t there.
After the weird euphoria we all have felt at the onset of a crisis—finding what to do, reorganizing our lives and routines, pitching in at feverish paces—there has come moments of dull, thudding sadness and a heavy weight. We can’t let it take us down, but we have to admit that it is there. A lot has happened and is happening. Sometimes the way to help is simply to listen. ZOOM and Facebook and Instagram are not as good as two human ears, but as long as there is a pair on the other end, it will have to do.
I know this is true: I feel that old familiar cloud, too. This pandemic won’t let me do my calling like I want to. We preachers and rabbis and other religious leaders are trying to figure out what to do about funerals and how to be there when people are dying. It’s done who knows what to my retirement fund, and I can’t celebrate my youngest granddaughter’s third birthday tomorrow in person. It’s just where we are. It’s real. And we can survive it together, even if that’s six feet apart or on a screen. So we’re going to be at the birthday dinner on FaceTime and eat here while they eat there, and cheer when she blows out the candles. People are working hard to find an answer, hospital heroes are risking everything. The least we can do is put up with inconvenience. But we’re all going to need to grieve. If not now, sometime soon.