Covid-19 Part II: Adjustment, Acceptance and Stages of Grief

“Whatever you thought 2020 was going to be about, think again!” Scott Morrison

Over the last month, it’s felt like society fell through a trap door. Only to get up, dust itself off, walk on, and fall through another trap door. And, after dusting off once again, yet another great fall. Seems there are more to come. When will we hit the bottom?

Adjusting to changes in shopping habits due to panic buying of toilet paper and other goods. Adjusting to loss of holiday plans. Adjusting to unemployment or underemployment. Adjusting to school closures. Adjusting to working from home. Adjusting to seeing too little of friends and too much of close family. Not counting all the little adjustments to routine.

And all the while, this is a disease that could kill us or our loved ones. It’s like we are playing Russian Roulette. How do we adjust to the enormity of our possible death?

Swiss Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, worked with terminally ill patients and wrote about her experiences in her best-selling book, On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross observed that people with terminal illness, and those who had lost a family member, tended to move through five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance.

What it feels like right now is that the whole of society is moving through stages of grief. What will society look like after this? When will we reach the bottom of this series of trap doors? Nobody knows. But it probably helps to be conscious of what we are experiencing. What stage of grief are you in?

Denial

Who’s up for a trip to Bondi Beach?

The denial stage is marked by a disbelief or downplaying of the seriousness of the situation. Denialist cling to a comfortable but counterfactual reality. Death and recession are literally too big an adjustment to accept all in one go. Most people deny reality at first so as not to be overwhelmed by anxiety. But anxiety is the natural reaction to future dangers, and so it comes, and when it comes it comes with…

Anger

Who is to blame for this? What are others (especially authorities) doing wrong? This is unfair!

Anger is an other-directed emotion. “My boss should be doing more!”. “The government should be doing more!”. “The people in the street should be doing more!”. The scary reality is that everyone else (including the government) is fairly powerless to stop this disease in its tracks. The government has competing risks that need to be weighed up, and there are no easy answers

But, to channel our distress and helplessness toward blameworthy target feels better than wallowing in sadness and dread. Though these emotions come with the next stage…

 Depression

“My life has changed for the worse and there’s nothing I can do about it”. Hopelessness and helplessness mark this stage. Ceaseless worry marks this stage. But depression comes not just from powerlessness and suffering. Depression comes also from a lack of meaning from that suffering, and in our search for meaning we engage in…

Bargaining

“Society will be better after all of this is over”. “We will work more collectively for the common good”. “We will be less globalised, rely more on local industry”. “We will realise that we don’t need to travel to schools and workplaces, the internet revolution will be complete”. “We will be better equipped to mobilise to stop global warming”.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this calamity for me personally has been hearing an outpouring of secular bargaining. What is the silver lining to this misfortune? People project their hopes and dreams on the new society to come after the dust has settled. It is calming and soothing to forge meaning out of pain. Our anxiety eases and, with time, we may enter…

Acceptance

“Whatever you thought 2020 was going to be about, think again!” Scott Morrison.

“That’s lucky, because I thought that 2020 was going to be the year the Coronavirus was going to hit!” Shaun Micallef.

Acceptance is the final stage. When people say “get used to the new normal” they are talking about acceptance. Calmness and stability mark this stage. The penny has dropped. Things might not be perfect, or even good. But reality has dawned, and we can move on.

So, quickly getting to the acceptance stage is good, right? No. Acceptance can’t be rushed. The dust has not yet settled. There are probably still more trap doors to fall through. Acceptance means no longer being surprised by “the new normal”. We have not arrived at the new normal yet.

We have to allow ourselves to be okay with experiencing the earlier stages. If what we are grieving (i.e. our old lives) really had value, then it would be flippant and disrespectful to giddily rush toward the acceptance stage.

Nevertheless, when we arrive, acceptance feels better than the earlier stages. It is the end of our struggle with reality. We face the future with an open face and willing hands.

In the current circumstance it means accepting that 2020 is the year the Coronavirus hit. Whatever that comes to mean.

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