Change, Grief, and Beauty Among COVID-19

Change is hard.

This time is challenging.   Even for an introvert.  Even for a therapist.  For a human.

At times, the world seems to be spinning.  The ground seems to resemble quick sand.  

What will life be like in the future?  What will life be like tomorrow?

Before I continue, let me say that there are different types of grief, though all grief comes from some form of loss.  Individually, people are experiencing the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of connecting with friends.  For this piece, I’m going to focus specifically on societal grief, which incorporates individual griefs coming together as well as the loss of life as we knew it, also known as change.  However, many will find this applicable for various types of grief.

When we talk about grief, many people will most widely know the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her description of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Can you look back at your own process since the beginning of March when life started to change because of COVID-19? Where are you now?  AND, if you can’t identify with one or any of the stages, that’s okay too.  We’re humans, not machines, and the stages were created as helpful sources of information, not sticky labels.  

Okay, so we have all these uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger.  But here’s the question:  WHY are we feeling them?

Since this article is a monologue, I’ll just have to tell you:  on the other side of grief is joy, love, happiness, and gratitude.  Grief, sadness, and anger over a loss only comes when we’ve had something, or someone, that also brought us joy and love.  

Martin Pretchel describes this best in his speech “Grief and Praise” which I highly suggest you go find on YouTube after you’re done reading this.  

In our case of the COVID-19 era ,  a lot of us are missing simple things.  Hugging our loved ones. Hugging strangers.  Going out to eat and sitting inside a restaurant. Traveling.  Not just to another country but to the city over. The crying baby sitting a seat over from us on the plane.  Not thinking about and analyzing everything we touch and who might have touched it before us.  Some of these things listed were always great.  Some of them we only realize were great now.  Ahhh, the gift of hindsight.  

The second idea I’m going to ask you to consider is a bit tougher: the possibility that grief and beauty can exist side by side. I remember in early September of last year when I got the call from my mom telling me she had cancer, less than 2 years after we found out my older sister had cancer.  I kept it together on the phone (partially because I was still in shock/denial) and then about a minute after I hung up collapsed to the floor in a pile of tears, snot, and slobber (my dog always licks my face when I cry).  For the next few minutes, I just let myself be consumed in the darkness of grief.  Then, somewhere still in a dark grey haze, I got up and moved.  The next day, I decided to carry on with my plans of running in the Wild Basin area inside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Suddenly, I was consumed in the beauty of Mother Earth, the Aspen trees just starting to turn gold, the low hanging clouds around the mountains. I smiled.  It was then that I realized that I had the capability of holding both sadness and joy, the darkness and the light, simultaneously.  It was like discovering a new super power.  (Both my mom and sister are still fighting.)

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My guess is that others too have found joy and reasons to be grateful during the past 2 months, in spite of Stay at Home and Safer at Home orders.  Some of us have been able to spend more time with our kids, found time for hobbies from not needing to commute to work, discovered what it feels like to get enough sleep, or even found ways to deeper connect with others by virtual means.  We may have cried and laughed in the same day, in the same hour, even in the same 5 minute span. That is beautiful.  That is being human.  

Now we’re entering into this phase of what people are calling the “New Normal”.  Still, no one actually knows what that looks like.  It feels really unsteady.  But guess what?  You’ve already gone through this stage.  Probably several times.  And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through.  Every. Single. Time. 

When we look at it more closely, life is actually a series of transitions, essentially leaving behind the old and stepping into the new.  More notable transitions are from adolescence to adulthood, single to married, childless to parenthood.  While I myself am not married or have kids (besides the fur baby), I’ve gone through several transitions in the past year, some unconsciously and some consciously.  The basis for any transition is letting go of the old, or parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and into the new, be it a time period or more developed part of ourselves.   In Rites of Passage work, there are three stages: severance (letting go), liminal (not who we once were and not yet who we will become), and the incorporation phase (bring our new selves and gifts into the world).

As you’ve probably guessed, as a society we are somewhere in the liminal stage.  The liminal stage is usually the most uncomfortable phase, and it often feels like we are wandering around in a dark forest without a headlamp.  However, we don’t have to stay lost forever.  As soon as we add intention to the liminal stage, it’s like the moon suddenly comes out from behind the clouds. We may still not know exactly where we are going, but we’ve got a light to guide us. I call this the “wanderlust phase” (hence the name of my counseling practice, Wanderlust Counseling).  

We’ve lost pieces of the life we once had and mourned (and may be still mourning) that loss.  Most of us are still somewhere in the 5 stages of grief, but getting closer to acceptance, sometimes still fluctuating back and forth between acceptance and denial (which is totally okay).  With acceptance,  we allow an opening for the new to come in.  The questions then become: “What do we want to invite in?”  “What is our intention?”  “What can we and do we want to create, especially with the gift of hindsight?” 

And I have to wonder, is it just a coincidence that this all occurring in the year 2020?

These are questions that I suggest we all consider individually, but as a society, we can consider them together too.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the terms “The Coronation” and “The Great Realisation” where the writers contemplate things like waste, pollution, consumption (of goods and animals),  technology, communication and what is truly meaningful.  What do we want for our Earth?  What do we want for future generations?  How do we want to live our lives going forward?

I know most of us reading this don’t have nationwide political influence.  But many of us may have influence in our communities, or workplaces, our families, and in our own choices.  And so, when you are ready, I ask you to consider the main question in the last stage of transition, incorporation:  What gifts do you have to bring to the world? Because we come together with our gifts, we open up to the possibility of something more, maybe something better.  .

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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