Are you feeling sad, angry, or depressed, but no one close to you has died? What with public gatherings canceled, most of us working or studying remotely, whole regions of the world locked down, and the global death-toll from COVID at more than one million, let’s not pretend there isn’t a lot to be sad, angry, depressed, or in denial about. As it happens, denial, anger, and depression are three of the five stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross. But, unless you have personally lost a friend or family member, you may not believe you are grieving. This is because of the common misconceptions that grief is reserved for our feelings of loss towards another person, or that we can only grieve losses that occurred in the past. In fact, no one needs to have died. You could be grieving the imagined loss of joy, success, intimacy, and connection in your future.
You may feel that your regrets about not hugging your parents, not sending your kids away to college, or not going to the gym are simply minor tweaks to your way of life that do not compare with the tragic loss experienced by a grieving parent or child. You may believe, therefore, that these short-term adjustments could not account for your feelings of sadness, anger, isolation, overwhelm, and depression. You could be wrong.
It is possible you are grieving the much greater future loss brought about by the very human question ‘what if?’ What if I never hug my parents or kiss my grand-kids again? What if I never return to work, or never fly back to my homeland, one last time? It is not only the lost moment in the present that makes us sad, angry or depressed. It is the fear that this joy or connection may never occur for us again.
Just as when you plant a seed you are imagining the flower or tree it will one day become, when we send our kids off to college, part of the joy is imagining their future success. When working out at the gym in the autumn, we’re often imagining ourselves on the beach in the summer. When we spend time with friends in our twenties, we’re building loving relationships we hope will last through middle age.
For some of us, the way in which our future plans have been indefinitely cancelled has been more violent than for others. Imagine being an athlete, who has trained for years to be in peak condition for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now postponed at least till 2021. On a track where every split second counts, twelve or twenty-four months could cost them a medal. Think of a single cisgender woman in her mid-thirties now unable to safely meet the father-to-be of her (still imagined) children. Spare a thought too for the actors, artists, playwrights, composers and musicians for whom an indefinite postponement could mean their work will never be publically performed.
And it’s not just those for whom the clock ticks the loudest who are grieving what they hoped to achieve or who they hoped to become. The indefinite pause button of COVID gives all of us occasion to grieve our spent youth, our lost fertility, or simply the opportunities and prospects which have been taken away. Even for those who are still employed and relatively affluent, a lack of confidence in the wider economy may well have quashed plans to move house, sell up, retire, travel the world, switch careers or have kids.
If you’re not familiar with the five stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, which occur in no particular order, I have summarized them here. You can see how they match up your own responses.
Denial helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of numbness and shock.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. The more you allow yourself to feel it, the more your anger will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.
After a loss, the “if onlys” cause us to find fault with what we think we or others could have done differently. We may even bargain with our pain. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
This stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on.
Acceptance is often confused with being “all right” with what’s happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK about their loss. This stage is about accepting the reality and recognizing that it is permanent.
If you recognize any or all of these feelings and no one has died, it’s interesting to ask yourself, “what exactly do I believe I have lost, now or in the future?”
Of course, many of us try to avoid or deny our feelings and emotions around grief. Acting as though everything is fine is perhaps the most common sign that you’re in denial. Some other common signs of denial include substance use, isolation (above and beyond what common sense and local law now dictates) or conversely throwing yourself into work or volunteering, in order to stay super busy.
To gain understanding, perspective and tolerance for the pain of grief, you need to allow yourself to actually feel it, face it, and be present to what’s going on. This may not help you alleviate your feelings of sadness, anger or depression, but it could help you explain your seemingly inappropriate feelings to yourself.