December 26, 2020

Five Stages of Grief and Losing Normalcy During Covid

You certainly know that COVID-19 has caused a great deal of loss. We’ve lost lives and have had a tremendous shift in our daily behavior.  Have you considered using psychological models to understand how these changes impact your mental fitness?  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief are the most easily recognizable model for seeing how we process grief.  I believe you can use this model to understand your reaction to the pandemic’s behavioral effects.

The pandemic has caused many things to change in the way I work, obliterating in-person training – the majority of my work. I had to move to online delivery, just like many of my fellow trainers. For me, moving to online delivery was very much like losing a close friend: I lost the in-person interaction with my students. 

The more I thought about what happened to me emotionally, the more I realized I need some way to make sense of my experiences.  I remembered the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model.  I am now able to make sense of my feelings brought on by shifting to virtual training.  I understand certain responses, and I’m comforted by understanding that my situation is quite typical. By personally evaluating the model, you’ll see that your behavior is also normal and relatively common.

The five stages of grief were developed as a framework for understanding how a profound feeling of loss (grief) is processed emotionally.  The stages are not necessarily in order or even experienced by all, but can act as a model to gain insights into our psyche.  Additionally, when you recognize that you are in a particular stage, there is a variety of advice for managing your reaction that you can find in psychology and academic journals.

Here are the stages with a brief description of the stages:

  • Denial - Refusal to accept the information or facts.  This reaction acts as a defense mechanism for trauma.
  • Anger - Being upset with the situation and possibly lashing out or blaming others.
  • Bargaining – Looking to control the situation or get out of it in some way.
  • Depression - Acceptance but with negative emotion. A feeling of hopelessness often characterizes this stage.
  • Acceptance - Emotional attachment begins to wane, and objectivity about the situation arises. 

The stages don’t all come to pass and may often occur in various orders.  The more I think about my work, the more I realized how these stages played out as COVID affected the loss of in-person training.

Denial

My first reaction to COVID was the belief that it’s only something happening on the west coast – only small pockets of the virus.  There was nothing to worry about where I live.  When the virus’s impact started to spread, and flights were canceled, I assumed it was just very nervous people causing a panic.  I was in the denial phase. 

Denial becomes more destructive the longer one lingers in here.  Fortunately, denial fades as you become stronger and able to accept the inevitable. 

I continued in this mindset – it’s going to end soon; we’ll have a cure, it’s only a couple of weeks away.  I held fast to the belief that in-person training would return within a few weeks when this illness passes.  I thought I didn’t have to learn how to give online classes because it isn’t a long term situation.

Too bad things didn’t work out like this.  Eventually, as the world learned more about the virus, the reality of the situation set in for everyone. 

Bargaining

The illness didn’t pass but my expectation for a quick solution did. If I could just wear my mask and stay home, this whole situation won’t affect me.  If everyone followed suit, we’d be OK in a few more weeks!  I entered a situation where I thought of what I could have done (or our society in general) to change the current reality. 

The bargaining stage has the potential for being very destructive. It’s a mindset where unfounded guilt can take over - the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” attitude.  Changing the past isn’t possible.  Self-blame for past actions has no solution and just feeds on a collection of destructive thoughts.

This stage didn’t appear for me until late.  The vaccines are coming.  If I can just wear my mask a little longer, this will go away. If I can only schedule out the first quarter with virtual classes, everything will be OK.  I began to think that if I had prepared before the pandemic, I would have had a better ability to cope with the situation, but that’s not true. 

Fortunately, I didn’t linger here long.  Unfortunately, I transitioned to the anger stage. 
 

Anger

I became irritable with staying home and wearing a mask. Driving became a competition with others on the road; the mailman never seemed to be on time; every email was a distraction.  Even the cicada in the back yard became irritatingly noisy. I lashed out at neighbors who didn’t wear a mask, who traveled with abandon, or who held parties in their back yard.  These are all symptoms of the anger stage – blaming others and further policing others.    

I had to learn how to train virtually, something I always felt was inferior for the students.  Each online class was an opportunity to complain.  All problems were someone else’s fault, and the ultimate bully was the virus.

When you are in the anger stage, it’s vital to recognize your behavior.  Anger may feel satisfying, but it can damage relationships that you’ve spent a long time developing. You’re not really yourself, and it’s very tough to be forgiving and patient – traits that are key for trainers.

Depression

Anger produced no results.  I eventually felt despair about the situation and hopeless in controlling anything.  I still did a great job of training, but my enthusiasm after class was low.  I lost interest in all of my hobbies.  Even though I had time to do the things I usually liked to do, they lost their flavor.  Here is the depression phase – a feeling that you have no control and don’t care.  Everything became a period of going through the motions.

In the depression phase, you should avoid big decisions – even if they seem right.  Your judgment is not as astute as usual.  Now is not a time to sell your house or get a new job.

In depression, it’s essential to reach out to friends and establish a more normal pattern.  None of this was easy during a time when personal contact and travel is limited.  Normalcy in a non-normal world is exceptionally challenging.  I used a journal – a productive way to express your ideas.

Acceptance

Unfortunately, acceptance can be a tenuous stage.  The slightest change can cause one to slide back to more destructive stages.  It may be a struggle with maintaining acceptance, but as time passes, you will tend to linger in this stage longer and longer.  For me, acceptance has been sporadic; at times, everything is fine, and then a small glitch seems to push me to regress to an undesirable stage.

Full acceptance takes time, and it doesn’t imply that things are normal, just that you will be OK. Here’s where one starts to move on with the situation as it exists, no longer resisting or trying to change the situation’s reality.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has caused us to lose lives, which makes a shift in behavior seem trite by comparison.  Both losses can be a significant source of grief, but we tend to ignore our inward focus.  We tend not to have patience with ourselves.

While everyone copes with loss differently, it’s essential to recognize thinking that is self-destructive.  Use models, like the five stages of grief, to help understand what’s happening in your mind, and you can realize that you’re not alone. Don’t let the adverse effects of any stage make your situation even worse. There is hope. We will all eventually emerge from this situation because things are going to get better.  They always do.