Grief and lessons in the time of coronavirus

Many who know me are aware that I’m a person who is pretty open to wisdom from wherever it might come—a shiny dime, a rainbow, the lyrics of a song, a toddler’s utterance, a bumper sticker…. You might also be aware that recently my son Dylan moved to California, to the Newport Beach area. It was a brave move. He knew no one there and had no job set up before he left. He had arranged a place to live, with a few older dudes, right near the beach. His plan was to do some surfing and build at least a temporary life in a different clime. Well, it was harder than he thought.

Harder to find a job, harder to meet people…so many things. The surfing was good, and he knew some people in LA he could visit, but LA is almost two hours from Newport Beach—not a quick jaunt. Sometimes, friends would pass through town, but not a lot. Dylan managed to secure an EMT job near where he was living. But the job had ridiculously long hours and abominable pay, and the days were long and about a .02 on the Excitement Scale. As it turned out, it was all about transport, not emergencies.

And not having friends nearby to hang out with proved more difficult than he’d thought. The roommates were friendly enough, but they were quite a bit older, and all in all, though the location was great, the housing situation wasn’t ideal. Sometimes he would call me—and of course, though I know he’s resourceful and pretty independent, I worried. Things just weren’t clicking for him, and he was discouraged, and he sounded lonely a lot of the time. Then one day he called me and said that he had been driving, and a car had pulled in front of him with the license plate, “LESSONS.”

“Lessons.” He told me it made him think about what all of this might be teaching him.

Maybe, behind and beneath everything he was experiencing, there was some (as of yet un-grasped) meaning.

Recently I read an article in the Harvard Business Review about grief, and how some of what many of us are feeling now, in these surreal pandemic times, is grief. If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it, writes Scott Berinato, in a preface to his interview with David Kessler, who has worked for years in the hospital system in Los Angeles and in a special reserve for traumatic events as a member of the disaster services team.

Kessler’s opinion is that during this global pandemic we are feeling several different griefs. The loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, the loss of connection is hitting us, and we’re grieving collectively. He believes we are also feeling “anticipatory grief,” which has to do with our uncertainty about what the future holds, about more broadly imagined futures: There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. “With a virus,” says Kessler, “this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. … We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”

As far as managing these feelings, understanding the stages of grief can be a good place to start, but Kessler reminds us that the stages may not occur in order. Still, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous map can help “provide some scaffolding for this unknown world.”

As far as the stages themselves, we have Denial, when we say things early on like: This virus won’t affect us. (Remember that?) Then, we have Anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. You mean I can’t even go see my new grandson? There’s also Bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better and we can all resume life as normal, right? There’s Sadness: I don’t know when this will end. What if I never see my grandmother again? And finally, there’s Acceptance. This is happening; this is the way things are; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance, says Kessler. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually. I can go to 12 Step meetings and meet with friends and family on ZOOM.

Basically, unhealthy anticipatory grief is about anxiety. We tend to “awful-ize” and imagine terrible outcomes. We envision worst case scenarios. This is our minds being protective, but Kessler warns that we shouldn’t ignore these images, or wish or will them away, but rather try and find balance in the things we are thinking. Are you thinking of the worst that could happen? Make yourself think of the best instead. Neither scenario should be ignored, but neither should dominate, either.

To calm yourself, the best thing to do is come into the present, says Kessler. If you’re not a big meditator, you can try something simple and practical, like naming five things in the room. It’s that simple. “Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This will work to dampen some of that pain.”

Also, try and think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What other people are doing is in the category of something outside of your control. They’re hoarding toilet paper? Not keeping the recommended distance on the footpath? What is in your control, says Kessler, is staying six feet away from them and washing your own hands. Focus on that.

Practice compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief, and it will manifest in different ways. People are stressed and thus sometimes impatient, snippy, grumpy. And remember, says Kessler: this is a temporary state. Working for a decade or more in the hospital system, he has trained for situations like this. He has also studied the 1918 flu pandemic. “The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. History tells us that. This is survivable. We will survive. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact.”

And, finally, Kessler believes we will find meaning in all this. Apparently, Kübler-Ross’ family gave him permission to add a sixth stage to grief to the famous five: Meaning. Having experienced some personal grief, Kessler didn’t want to stop there. “I wanted meaning in those darkest hours,” he said. “We find light in those times.” “I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”

When asked what to say to someone who’s read all this and is still feeling overwhelmed with grief, Kessler says, “Keep trying. There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, ‘I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time’ or ‘I cried last night.’ When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through…If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims. … Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.”

It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to howl from the depths to our God. It’s okay to be pissed off and brokenhearted and confused and outraged and out of our minds with sadness. The Universe, Higher Power, Whatever It Is You Believe In is big enough for all we can throw out at it. “There is no depth, no loss, no tragedy, no disease or death, nothing on heaven or on earth or under the earth that can place the world or anyone in it beyond God’s redemption,” writes theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer. When we cry out from the depths, we are heard. Cosmically.

You got problems? Fear? Grief? Loneliness? Frustration? Love is bigger. Life can get really hard, really weird, really difficult, I know. But I think when we ask any question with any kind of a theological, ethical, emotional bent, the answer is almost always: love. Whatever the question, that’s most likely your go-to.

And as for “LESSONS”—the message on the car in front of us—what, after all, can we learn? I don’t have all the answers and I don’t even know exactly what you are asking of the universe right now, but I know we can learn to keep things simple. To take it one day at a time. To try and live in the present moment. We can remember it isn’t all about us. If we don’t stay home for ourselves, we can stay home for the most vulnerable among us. We can make that sacrifice out of love for our sisters and brothers.

And speaking of sisters and brothers…we can stay connected and take heart that we are in this together, all of us, in this whole world—and that with intelligence, care, compassion and a willingness to listen to the scientifically gifted among us, we can get through this and be the stronger and maybe even the better, the wiser, for it.

I will end with Psalm 103 (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

I listen for you; my soul
listens like a deer in the forest.
My soul waits more intently
than a soldier watching for the dawn.
Answer me; open my heart
so that I can wholly receive you.
And teach me that when I am ready,
you will let this suffering pass.