essays

The five stages of grief and the pandemic

I have been thinking about Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief as they pertain to the pandemic.

When I think of the first stage,** anger, the behaviors that come to mind include researching conspiracy theories, protesting lockdown, and refusing to wear a mask. I have engaged in some of these behaviors myself, mostly toward the start of lockdown. In anger, we act out against and seek to prevent a negative outcome, because with recognition of that outcome will arise deeper, more difficult emotions. 

When I think of the second stage, denial, conspiracy theorizing also comes to mind. However, so does its converse, which is putting up with Covid restrictions in the hope of a “return to normal:” in denial, we believe that what we have lost in fact lies right around the corner, if only we behave in a certain way. This is why denial so fluidly slides into the third stage of grief, bargaining. 

Bargaining is the stage where we hazard “if, then” statements, believing that “if” we behave in a certain way, “then” we can avoid the negative outcome we fear. See rigorously obeying Covid restrictions, demanding that others do the same and shaming them for not doing so, and diligently lining up to receive the vaccine. In the bargaining stage, we believe that if only we behave as we are asked to, a “return to normal” awaits us; life can go back to what we know.

The fourth stage of grief, depression, knows that no normal is ever returning. This is where I myself have been spending much of my time recently, acquiescing to a future in which Covid is the law of the land, and I cannot go to restaurants or bars as I did previously, cannot meet people spontaneously, travel very little and have fewer aspirations. In this state of being, I can feel very dead inside, as though my life from here to death will be a piddling away of energy, a waste. The “depression” phase of grief is the most difficult, and the one the three previous stages are designed to avoid. 

At times throughout this pandemic, I have known acceptance as well. In acceptance, I embrace the same conditions as does depression: I know that normal is gone and is never coming back; the world is forever changed. However, the difference is that in acceptance, I experience this condition as survivable: the world might never go back to what it was, and still I will be okay. In a life of shrinking horizons, I will learn to value different things; in a life of fewer spontaneous meetings, I will simply meet people in different ways. In acceptance, I adapt, shifting toward the future having recognized the past as dead; differently put, I settle into an altered present. 

As Kübler-Ross knew, the first four stages of grief must be fully processed in order to herald the fifth, and furthermore, they might arise in a different order from the one I presented here. Additionally, stages of grief might coexist: for instance, we might experience anger and bargaining simultaneously. In my own case, I currently seem to be fluctuating between depression and acceptance: sometimes it seems okay that the “old normal” might never again return, and sometimes it feels like a terrible fate. Regardless, the one thing I am proud of is that I have firmly let go of the past. 

Reading this post, which state of grief do you find yourself in with respect to this pandemic? Through knowing this about yourself, are there ways in which you might either proceed further through the stages, or offer counsel to those who struggle alongside you? What do you need to give yourself in order to facilitate these outcomes?

**  I realized after writing this article that I had intuitively switched the first and second stages as presented in Kübler-Ross’s model; instead, consider this the order in which the five stages have manifested for me.

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