As a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles for over twenty-five years, I have worked with many clients who have experienced grief and loss. Often, the client’s loss is due to a loved one who has passed on. Other losses have been because a relationship or a situation has “died.” Examples of these types of losses can include going through a divorce, a break-up, a fractured relationship with someone in your life, retirement, the empty-next syndrome, financial calamity, thoughts of one’s own mortality and getting older, not being able to physically and/or cognitively function as well as one used to, etc.
Typically, regardless of the kind of loss a person has suffered, there are several stages of grief someone may experience. These five stages of grief were identified by a psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Note that it is not unusual to only experience some of these stages, and that sometimes the stages can occur again even if the person has already been through that stage and is in one of the other stages of grieving. Also, be aware that the more losses a person has sustained, the more intensely these stages may be felt, especially if the losses have occurred simultaneously or in close proximity to each other in which there hasn’t been enough time to start healing from the previous loss. Another significant factor to remember in understanding one’s emotions while grieving is that it often is more disturbing a loss if it happens more suddenly and unexpectedly than a loss which has happened over time.
The five stages of grief which Dr. Kubler-Ross identified are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Note that people can experience other stages and feelings associated with grief and loss as well. For the purpose of this blog, I will explain each of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief in relation specifically to the different types of losses which may have occurred for people due to the coronavirus to provide guidance and understanding to those experiencing any or all of these stages of grief. Losses due to the coronavirus include death of a loved one, you or a loved one being ill with COVID-19, quarantining, missing holidays and milestone occasions (funeral, birth, wedding, birthday, etc.), inability to physically be with family and friends for in-person emotional and social support, loss of or furloughed job, financial hardship, working from home, children being schooled at home, loneliness (especially if living alone), loss of control, mourning one’s former lifestyle, and/or wondering when or if things will ever be “normal” again.
The first stage is denial which also can be felt like shock or numbness. The person who has suffered the loss cannot believe that this is actually true and things might feel very surreal. I refer to this stage as feeling like a person is swaddled in cotton since he or she cannot get in touch with his or her feelings because they are subconsciously muted out. For instance, if a person is grieving the death of a loved one due to the coronavirus, it may seem unreal and incomprehensible for a while that one’s loved one has actually died. This denial stage is actually necessary and important since it serves to protect a person from feeling too much too soon. (However, note that what I call the “waves” can still occur during this and any of the stages of grief, in which one suddenly can feel much upset about the loss, which should be felt a bit instead of repressed. These “waves” of emotion can be triggered just randomly or by something associated with the lost person or situation.)
The second stage is anger, in which the person who’s grieving can feel upset by how unfair or unjust the loss is. Someone can be angry at God or a higher power, destiny, fate, or even the departed person or situation for no longer existing, and can emotionally lash out at those in one’s life. For example, it would be completely understandable if a person is angry over the loss of his or her former lifestyle due to the pandemic, especially if more than one aspect of it has been affected (i.e., financial hardship, being unable to go out, not being able to frequent the places one used to go, being unable to see loved ones, and/or go to work or school, etc.).
The third stage is called bargaining during which people may have false hope and can try to negotiate with God or a higher power or even themselves in an attempt to bring a person or situation back to life. For example, someone who’s lost his or her job because of the pandemic might vow to work harder and appreciate having a job if he or she can just have the job back again. If a person has lost a loved one to COVID-19, he or she may plead with God or a higher power to take his or her life instead of the person who has died.
The fourth stage of grief is depression which occurs after the denial has started wearing off, and after the anger and/or bargaining have not brought back the person or situation he or she has lost. In this stage, the person realizes that there is nothing he or she can do to bring back what has been lost. During this stage, someone can feel more of the raw pain, sadness, despair, and helplessness about the loss which can result in feeling depression and make the person withdraw and be less interested in connecting with anyone very much.
The fifth stage of grief is acceptance. Unfortunately, not everyone reaches this stage, but may stay stuck in one or more of the previous stages of grief. If one does get to the acceptance stage, he or she has found a healthy way to come to terms with the loss, has adequate closure with it, and has found a way to be at peace with living in this new norm. The person experiences more positive than negative days, can start re-connecting with loved ones again, and maybe try creating relationships with new people as well.
There are several steps a person can take during the COVID-19 crisis and quarantine (and after) to grieve and cope in a healthy way. First of all, under any circumstance, the best way for people to deal with their grief is to allow themselves to go through these natural stages of mourning so that they hopefully can get to the acceptance stage. Don’t try to force yourself to feel while in the first stage of denial since it is needed as a buffer to stop you from feeling overwhelmed with grief-related emotions. As time goes on, you will naturally move into some or all of the other stages of grief. If you are going through any or all of these stages, let yourself feel the anger, do some bargaining, and go through the depression which will occur when you are able to feel the loss more and more. Lean on your loved ones as a support system for you and for each other by regularly talking in-person with those you live with and by phone or video with those you don’t. Have social activities with family and friends you live with or virtually whether it’s dancing together, cooking together, book club, etc. as a way to stay connected to people and have some joy in your life. Journal about your thoughts and feelings related to the loss or losses you are going through as a way to stop those thoughts and feelings from building up which can cause even more upset (such as greater depression, panic attacks, etc.). Exercise as regularly as possible in and outside your home to release some of the upset through a healthy channel. Engage in a hobby at home which can help you periodically distract from your mourning. Stay informed about current events about the pandemic, but don’t add more trauma by being overexposed.
Last, but not least, practice self-care in a time more needed than ever by eating and sleeping properly; drinking enough water; keeping emotional stress down by having mindful or meditative moments; breathe fully to calm your mind, body, and emotions; and make time for lightness, laughter, and playfulness to have more balance emotionally in your life. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, also noted that humor is a healthy coping mechanism. Furthermore, if needed, it can be very beneficial to work with a grief and loss psychologist to help you productively cope with all this. Hopefully, by going through the grieving stages in as healthy a way as possible, you can reach that acceptance stage and be better able to effectively rebuild your life.