We in the United States knew about the new virus called the Covid19, a more virulent variation of the SARS virus, well before we were seemingly suddenly affected. At least, we had followed its progress in China, and tried pulling our citizens out of China. We became aware that a cruise ship just off Japan had become affected. We followed that but did not yet fully understand what was impending. Seemingly suddenly, in March the virus began to spread – first in Washington State, then on the coasts in general, then over the entire country. Schools were among the first to shut down. This was quickly followed by the shutdown of any venue where people might gather – gyms, bars, etc. Then, full lockdown was instituted in most states, with all but essential businesses closed, and people instructed to stay at home, keeping at least 6 feet between themselves and other human beings (except for the people with whom one lives). No longer would close human contact be, as usual, a resource for stress and change. No gatherings of more than 10 people, each 6 feet apart. The news proceeded to issue running totals of the sick and dead, and to report how the hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed, understaffed, and poorly stocked with needed equipment. Each day seemed to add a bit more on what we were to do and how dangerous our lives had become. Fear mounted. As Sonia Livingstone in YES magazine commented, we had “lost jobs, lost vacations, lost weddings, lost family members.” Yet, the news says very little about grief. Most of us are grieving.
The classic stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, not necessarily in that order. We deny our losses, saying they are not lost but just on hold for awhile. We deny the situation, believing that shortly everything will go back to how it was. We sedate ourselves with emphasis on the advantages of isolation (and there are advantages to slowing down, having time to be, and having time to be with family), trying to tell ourselves how fortunate we are. We do not acknowledge the losses we have sustained from this virus. This is denial.
Some of us are angry, and the news media likes this response. It can be tapped for political reasons, and is sometimes used to deflect responsibility from ourselves by calling it “the Chinese virus” as if that would make it go away. People who are angry can refuse to comply with distancing instructions or can unleash their fearful anger on others by criticizing and finger pointing. None of this is helpful; yet, if we do not acknowledge the grief, the anger will not simply disappear. Everything has suddenly changed; we no longer have the comfort of each other except by machine mediation; we no longer have the sense of being safe in our world; the simplest of tasks, e.g., grocery shopping, has taken on whole new aspects and component details; we have lost the sense of ourselves as productive workers, and some of us have physically lost family members who are no longer with us. The losses are massive, and, although this particular virus will pass, the world will never be the way it was before. The grief is also massive, and we need to acknowledge it.
Next, the bargaining; if we are very good and follow the rules, things may go back to the way they were before. This is a hope, but not a reality. There are definitely ways we need to change to engender positive outcomes, but just following the rules which keep us safe now are not those ways. Understand that for a long time we have been inflicting problems and negativity on our planet. Some of these are war, racism and rejection of the poor and suffering, massive development which destroys the natural habitats of our fellow beings on earth, fossil fuel extraction and burning combined with factory farming, especially CAFOs, which massively increase the pace of global warming, political divisions and feuding, plastic and other pollution, extreme income inequality, the results of global warming, such as increased fires and storms and the resulting suffering. These actions of ours do not come without consequences. Viruses thrive in an atmosphere of negativity, and the current state of the Earth is a feast for viruses. This one may pass, but if we do not change our ways and act in ways that heal our earth and clean up our negativity, viruses will continue to appear and have a virus party at our expense. These are the things on which we need to focus, rather than on futile attempts to be “good enough” so things will go back to the way they were before. We can have a positive and wonderful result, but only if we accept that we need to clean up our acts first.
Which brings us to acceptance. Most of us are not there yet. Acceptance of what has happened, acceptance of our losses, acceptance of changes made and changes we need to make are what will lead us out of grief to a better situation. We of course will not forget – one does not forget what was loved but is lost – but we will no longer be in a state of pain and suffering. If we accept and do the work we need to do, we can transcend the current distress and rise whole from its remains.
We need to become aware of and acknowledge our grief. We need not be ashamed of the stages of grief we may be experiencing now, but we need to acknowledge them for what they are. We need to be as gentle as possible with ourselves as we pass through these stages and allow ourselves to feel them. Unless we feel them, we cannot process them, and we become stuck in our grief. We can raise our voices in cries and wails of mourning as we move through this wake for what was. We need to feel all this and process it and arrive at the acceptance of loss and of what work now needs be done. That is our hope; it is the only realistic one.
May we each allow ourselves to grieve, to be gentle with ourselves in grieving, and to finally accept – accept both our losses and our responsibility to do the work of moving ahead.