Pandemic Life: Moving Through Stages Of Grief

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The pandemic has given us abundant reasons to grieve: lost lives, lost jobs, canceled weddings and funerals, and isolation from family and friends. Trying to make sense of these losses and learn from them can be overwhelming.

Mental health therapist Rose Bautista, MSW, LSW, discusses how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s renowned Five Stages of Grief™ can be applied to all of us living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Bautista offers insights on the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, which are direct consequences of grief, she notes, “This isn’t linear. We tend to move fluidly from one to the other – sometimes in a matter of minutes or hours and other times over days or months. We don’t all experience all of these stages. It really depends on the person.”

1. Denial

Denial can be a way to protect yourself, a strategy of closing off the magnitude of a change or loss. You may feel shock or numbness in this stage. Bautista, who counsels children in a Dayton, Ohio, school district, describes, “Last March, we at first thought we’d be out of school for two weeks. Then, it kept being pushed back.” As a year has passed, many students and parents thrust into the reality of remote learning have been reluctant to admit that they are struggling with academics, social isolation, or both.

Denial also has occurred among family members who had a healthy loved one suddenly infected with COVID-19, whisked off to the hospital, and dying with little or no time to say goodbye.

Bautista adds that people who once denied the importance of mental health are gaining new perspective. “In the past, you didn’t often hear people say, ‘I feel more anxious.’ Now we’re hearing it more with both children and adults. The pandemic’s significance in everyday life is hard to ignore at this point.”

2. Anger

“Anger looks different with different people,” Bautista says. “Dig deeper into what’s causing your anger.” She explains that it can stem from feelings of frustration, helplessness, vulnerability, or humiliation. All of these can fuel anger. People may become argumentative, feel sad, or feel isolated. Allowing yourself to feel anger can actually help the feeling dissipate. It’s a natural stage of healing that can give us temporary strength and structure as we direct our anger at someone or something.

3. Bargaining 

“Bargaining is often a negotiation with ourselves to give us some sense of control,” Bautista says. “We say to ourselves, ‘I’ll be all right if…’  or ‘When this is over, I’ll do this.’” It also can be a negotiation with God. “If you just save my father, I will…for the rest of my life.” Guilty thoughts of “What if…?” or “If only…” pop up as we long to go back to a better time.

Bautista notes that if you have the motivation to make changes during the pandemic, break your plan into manageable steps. Make small changes you’re comfortable with. "If it's too big or vague – like I'm going to lose weight or I'm going to garden more – one can easily feel overwhelmed by the scale of the goal and struggle with making headway."  

4. Depression

Intense sadness or withdrawal from life can be a normal response to significant loss. This isn’t necessarily a mental health illness, but it can be connected to one. Experts have documented drug and alcohol use and domestic violence increasing during the pandemic.

“When I talk to families of students and staff, there’s a feeling of helplessness when we don’t know and don’t have a grasp on things,” Bautista says. “Nerves are on edge. Families have lost loved ones to the virus or other health complications. Some have waited to bury a loved one months later.”

Bautista recommends setting a routine as an effective coping strategy. “It doesn’t have to be every minute of the day, but at some point in the day, create stability with a scheduled meal, exercise activity, or recreational activity.”

She also recommends finding someone who is a support for you who is trustworthy, reliable and consistent. If you don’t have someone who is a friend or family member, she recommends finding a mental health professional who can be compassionate and objective.

5. Acceptance

“The pandemic has flipped everything upside down,” Bautista says. “In our school system, it has changed how we meet with parents, children, and co-workers. It’s fascinating to see how we can get creative and try out new things.”

Acceptance is about moving on to embrace a new reality. “We may put stipulations on the acceptance, such as ‘I can accept not seeing family members, as long as they are healthy and safe.’ This creates a sense of normalcy and sense of control.”

Bautista offers some tips for reaching a point of acceptance:

  • View each situation you encounter as a practice of patience, faith, or perseverance. Whether you are stuck in traffic or have lost a job, ask yourself how you can make this meaningful. How can it help you grow? Bautista likens it to doing strength training to build muscles: as you tear down muscle fibers, you build stronger muscles.
  • Each day, identify three things for which you are grateful. These can be as simple as making it to an appointment on time or finding child care for your baby. Building a positive mindset is part of the work of acceptance.
  • Recognize that you have control over how you view things. “Even a negative influence can have a positive outcome,” Bautista says.

If anxiety and worry flare up to the point that they are consuming your thoughts and disrupting your daily life, job performance, and relationships, consider seeking professional counseling.

“There are lots of agencies in our community,” Bautista says. “Ask yourself whether you are looking for a religious or spiritual guide; a group setting or individual counseling; in-person, phone-based, or online counseling; or a weekly or monthly session. Most people have some ideas about what they want.”  

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Rose Bautista, MSW, LSW, Samaritan Behavioral Health