April 7, 2020

Facing Coronavirus: a Grief Process.

Read Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


Two weeks into facing isolation, job loss, school closures, sickness, and an overwhelmed medical system, the shutdown of our accustomed way of living has triggered a mass wave of anxiety and uncertainty. 

Unlike an earthquake, a tsunami, or a terrorist attack , a virus is invisible, evoking childhood fears of mythic entities like ghosts, the bogeyman, or wild beasts. But microscopic entities are the least tangible of enemies: even ghosts have forms that we can illustrate and conceptualize. You can’t shoot it with a gun, or clean it up with a bulldozer or a chainsaw. You have no idea if what you touch is contaminated, or if someone you love will infect you.

It’s nowhere, yet everywhere.

Once it travels into your lungs, it can arrest your ability to breathe. Social isolation only exacerbates the fear, yet is the logical solution to limiting the spread of the virus. We are inherently social creatures, and healthy attachment and bonding with our loved ones supports our physical and psychological well-being. We gather for social contact on online platforms: the screens that have become the addiction that separated us are now the only means of uniting us. Dinners, drinking, dancing, and even sex have moved to Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.

We are in collective shock concerning the loss of normalcy that we had just three weeks ago. And as Americans, our middle class comforts that we have taken for granted have been suddenly torn away from us. Americans presume that we’ll have access to health care, food, work, recreation, a safe and warm home, and myriad social functions. The disruption is unlike anything I’ve seen in my generation.

When the shock of the onset of COVID-19 morphs into anger, depression, and then grief at the loss of our way of life, and possibly someone we love, we will undergo a national reckoning to restore our psyches and our lives when the threat is over. As the curve of the virus flattens, the inverse curve of grief and mourning will rise.

A divide in our society has emerged in which those who are self-isolating react in disbelief to those who openly flaunt stay-at-home orders and party together on beaches, in parks, or cluster together on hiking trails and parks to escape the boredom of being home. The denial can only last as long as those who go about their lives as normal don’t see friends and relatives in hospitals wearing ventilators (if they’re lucky enough to get one), struggling to breathe.

A meme circulating on social media goes: “For the first time in history, we can save the human race by laying in front of the T.V. and doing nothing. LET’S NOT SCREW THIS UP!” Being forced to stay home, for a nation founded on non-conformity, is a collective challenge. Americans are not known to adhere to rules imposed by their government, as is more typical in Asian countries. We are, however, a country that comes together in times of crises to help our neighbors and donate to those who are suffering.

Staying at home will stress families as they struggle to keep kids entertained and engaged, and as job losses strain family finances. Many who have lost minimum wage jobs will not be able to meet their rent or mortgages. Married couples and intimate partners will face a sudden abundance of time together in confined spaces, testing the boundaries and limits of their relationships. Domestic violence has tragically increased. The busyness that keeps us from experiencing our own emotions or facing unresolved conflicts will no longer be an excuse to avoid contentious or unresolved issues within ourselves and in our relationships.

Fear, like the virus, is also contagious. We are instinctual beings, who unconsciously respond to the thoughts and feelings of the collective. People who have contracted and recovered from severe cases of the virus have reported nightmarish fevers, chills, and trips in and out of the ICU for trouble breathing. This is no ordinary flu. We are only a few weeks into a global crisis. Months from now, the psychological stress, similar to PTSD, will emerge in a wide swath of the population. From loss of  jobs, familiar ways of relating and moving through the world, and the possible deaths of loved ones, masses of people will need help processing this traumatic period in their lives.

As a grief counselor, I work with people who have lost spouses and adult children, often suddenly. The loss of what we knew as normal was torn away from us just a few weeks ago. When the shock of the extreme disruption to our lives subsides, we will grieve collectively for what we once knew, and through our brokenness and sadness, hopefully care more for one another.



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