Coronavirus and the five stages of grief

by Brian on August 2, 2020

in Covid-19,Science

COVID-19 has turned me into a silent shamer. When I see someone not wearing their coronavirus face mask properly, I send angry thoughts in that person’s direction, although since I rarely say anything, my anger is mostly inflicting self-harm rather than doing any ostensible good.

People who wear their masks under their noses, on their chins or not at all must not care about others, I think. They’re so self-centered they’d rather get other people (and themselves) sick than follow the scientific consensus on best practices for pushing past the pandemic.

There’s another way to look at the mask-less masses, though. 

Arianna Galligher, associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio State, pointed out in a recent issue of Fast Company that bad mask behavior may be the result of “crisis fatigue.”

“There’s a feeling of resignation that sometimes results from having crisis after crisis after stressor to manage,” Galligher explains. â€œSometimes, it can feel like it’s all too much.” The result is that “someone might adopt a ‘why bother’ sort of attitude and get into an existential funk about it.”

Dr. Michael Kelley concurs. When humans endure prolonged periods of stress of any kind, they go through phases, he says. We now seem to have entered the “plateau of exhaustion, the ‘is it ever going to end?’ phase,” where you don’t see a way out and you say, “I’m going to stop fighting. I’m not going to wear a mask or social distance.”

This “plateau of exhaustion” might be a COVID-19 expression of one of the five stages of grief, originally outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” 

Kübler-Ross describes what human beings go through when we mourn a major loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

We don’t necessarily proceed in that order and one could remain in a single stage for months while skipping some of the others entirely. But it’s a useful way of thinking about what’s happening in our psyches in the age of corona.

The entire world is “dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew,” explains David Kessler, who coauthored with Kübler-Ross 2005’s “On Grief and Grieving.”

We are grieving for a world that is (currently) gone and, for many of us in resurgent hotspots, even more for the loss of hope that we had beaten the virus, only to now fall more deeply into the worst of the plague.

That mixes with what Kessler calls “anticipatory grief.” 

“Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it,” he explains. It’s like a storm coming. “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. [It] breaks our sense of safety.”

My personal default grief stages are a combination of depression and anger, with bits of bargaining thrown in. The latter involves making little deals with myself.

If I meet with family and friends only outside, I’ll be OK. 

If I wear the Israeli-made face mask infused with nanoparticles of zinc, the virus won’t get through and I’ll be safe. 

People who refuse to wear masks or social distance, on the other hand, or who label the pandemic a hoax, seem to be deep in a different phase of the mourning process: denial.

Some of that is a result of political infighting. 

Some is a result of the confusing messaging by officials.

And some may be just how our brains deal with mourning on an individual level. 

Striving to deny the intense feelings that accompany death and disease is natural; it gives us a path towards coping with them. We tell ourselves the issue is not real and it cannot affect us.

When two groups with different grief defaults come in contact with each other, there will inevitably be a clash. I’m angry at those in COVID denial. They, on the other hand, don’t understand why I’m so angry. We are having a hard time seeing each other.

What if, instead of negatively labeling people who approach the pandemic in a way we wouldn’t, we could have compassion. The unmasked may be as psychologically shell-shocked as I am. They may just be expressing it in a very different manner.

To be sure, empathy is not an excuse. Science comes down hard on the side of wearing a mask to control this pandemic. But there’s little we can do to change other people’s behavior. Waving epidemiologists’ opinions won’t move someone from one stage of grief to another. The only behavior you can really change, of course, is your own.

That usually leads to what’s typically the final stage of mourning: acceptance. 

Can we accept that – without dismissing or denigrating either science or law – we all have different ways of coping with the novel situation we’ve found ourselves in? 

Can we accept that we’ll do all we can personally to stay safe and we’ll speak persuasively but non-condescendingly toward those we think are putting society at risk (and let go when there’s nothing left to be said and done)?

Can we accept that as long as the virus is out there, it could get to us and while that would suck, that would be OK too?

Embracing this fifth stage of mourning would certainly be less confrontational than holding in anger every time I go out to walk the dog or open up the news. 

Even – no, especially â€“ towards the mask-less who, it seems, will continue to grieve through denial for some time to come.

I first explored the five stages of coronavirus grief at The Jerusalem Post.

Kubler-Ross chart from U3173699 / CC BY-SA

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