Not long after my dad died, I memorized the five stages of grief. I figured they would help me get through that major loss and enable me to better articulate what I was experiencing. Three years later, my husband died, and those five words became deeply imprinted on my brain: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages were markers—signposts on a horrible journey that I didn’t want to be on. They promised to guide me when I was hopelessly lost—reminding me that I was headed in the right direction.
Except the directions kept changing. I’d hit Anger Town, and expect to reach Bargaining City next. But the Land of Acceptance would suddenly appear! It was the best of the stops, one that I never got to visit much in those early days. Before I knew it, I’d be back on the road, hurtling toward Depressionville.
In grief, you have good days and bad days. Sometimes you’ll wake up and think, today doesn’t feel as difficult!, only to wind up in the fetal position, crying, hours later. Eventually, you’ll enjoy weeks of progress—settling into a routine, feeling hopeful, making plans for the future—when suddenly you hit a low point and feel like you’ve somehow landed back at square one.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. The stages were initially developed to explain the process people go through when they are given a terminal diagnosis. This process was later on applied to loved ones grieving a death, and gained widespread popularity.
We flock to frameworks like the stages of grief because we crave structure and rules, especially in times of uncertainty. We want to predict what’s next. We want to know how long this period will last. We want some reassurance that things will soon get better.
David Kessler, who co-wrote two books with Kübler-Ross, has spoken out about how the five stages of grief are often misunderstood. “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages,” Kessler said. “They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.”
The twisty-turny path of grief drove me crazy in the first year or so after my husband died. I desperately wanted to be able to track progress—to prove somehow that I was moving in the right direction, and nearing the end of my pain.
Isn’t there a grief handbook or something?
I asked some version of this question to my therapist so many times that, after telling me no over and over, she eventually suggested I make one. I never did. I wanted someone else to instruct me what to do next.
The closest resource I found was a book called A Widow’s Guide to Healing, written by Kristin Meekhof and James Windell. It provided week-by-week to-do lists of crucial tasks to attend to in the first month after death, and included “checklists of considerations” in regards to topics like solo parenting, getting remarried, and finding a new career. The majority of the advice was logistical—focusing on topics like finances and legal matters—instead of the emotional guidance I was looking for.
Even this book, with its detailed lists and practical advice, included a caveat: “If you are reading this right after your loss, we wish we could offer you complete reassurance that you will feel better soon and the fogginess you felt in the first days and weeks will go away in six months. But we can’t do that. Everyone grieves differently, and everyone follows their own time frame for recovering from the death of a spouse.”
The message was clear: There is no path to follow. There’s no set way to approach grief, no correct order of events that will ensure you experience the least pain possible. For a Type-A person like me, it was an incredibly frustrating truth to accept.
It’s no secret that we are experiencing collective grief in our COVID-affected world. We are mourning a loss of routine and freedom, a sense of calm, a simpler time that seems impossibly far away. We are mourning for our loved ones, who are experiencing various hardships. And, of course, we are mourning the many lives lost. It all adds up, and it all results in a grief that’s hard to shake.
Some of us might be in the bargaining stage—wondering if we can still gather with our friends in the park at a safe distance (the answer, my dudes, is a resounding no). Others might be angry—furious at our elected officials for not being better prepared or informed, and wanting to scream. Some of you, like me, may be hovering somewhere between depression and acceptance.
As we enter yet another week of self-isolation and social distancing, I find myself cycling through many of the stages of grief. I suspect you are too. I’m also experiencing other responses, which seem just as important in processing this uncertain time. Once again, I want to figure out what exactly I’m feeling; I’m craving structure amid all the chaos.
If we were to create a framework for coronavirus-related grief, other stages might include anxiety, fear, and boredom. Determining the stages of COVID grief could give us a shared understanding and help us better identify what we’re going through. But it wouldn’t help us predict what’s ahead.
Just like the authors of A Widow’s Guide to Healing, I wish I could offer solid reassurance. I can’t tell you how long this will last, or what stages of grief you’ll go through. I even hesitate to share a platitude like “it will get better,” because I know things will likely get worse before they improve. I don’t have a neat conclusion or wise lesson to provide because those things don’t yet exist. We are in the thick of this.
What I can tell you—and what I’m constantly trying to tell myself—is that this isn’t easy. Even if you’re in a privileged situation, living with a significant other, working from home, happy with your comforts and distractions, you are still adjusting to a new normal and absorbing an incredible amount of distressing information. We are all experiencing varying levels of discomfort, and dealing with it as best we can.
There’s no timeline for this pandemic, and there’s no right way to respond to it. We are all muddling through, cycling through a variety of stages of grief, and doing our best. We don’t have a handbook, but we’re figuring it out all the same.
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This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who spent most of her weekend in the Land of Acceptance. Take me with you next time!