Landmarks of Grief

It has been just over six months since the first covid-19 restrictions appeared in my life. It’s been about that long for most of us. So today I’m taking the opportunity to remind myself and you that grief can keep appearing in unexpected ways, especially during an ongoing series of losses and changes, like those brought on by this pandemic.

Navigating grief is a challenge in and of itself. There’s no roadmap. Instead, there are markers, sort of landmarks or milestones, telling you that you’re on your way through grief. There’s no shortcuts through grief, either. It is a journey we must walk through.

We often think of grief as sadness. Sadness is part of grief, but not all of it. Psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified several stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They each provide a kind of landmark. When you see yourself surrounded by anger, it might very well be that you’re grieving. When you notice that someone you care about is in total denial, is it possible they’ve experienced loss, not that they just have their head stuck in the sand?

Grief isn’t a straight line past each stage in order, though. Sometimes grief feels like we’re walking in circles as we go past denial and anger over and over. “It can’t be true! Who let this happen? It just can’t be. How can this be happening? I don’t believe it.” Sometimes grief feels like we’re stuck on a roundabout of depression, circling round and round without being able to find the exit we need.

In an extended series of losses, like the ones caused by the pandemic, it can be hard to even realize that we’re grieving. If you just feel angry all the time, it’s probably grief. If you are making deals and bargaining with yourself about “just a few more weeks of masks” or “if I don’t feel sick, it’s safe enough to give hugs,” that’s probably grief.

Grief is hard. Grief, like this pandemic, often brings unexpected surprises. Grief, like this pandemic, doesn’t have a clear end in sight. And grief, like this pandemic, is not forever. Grief, like this pandemic, does not define us. Only God can do that.

In the middle of grief and loss, we need to be reminded of the same thing Paul reminded the early Christians when they experienced death: we do not “mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” Hope is our light in the darkness, our compass when we’re disoriented, our guide when we’re lost. Hope is our assurance that God will not abandon us in the darkest valley, but lead us to green pastures and quiet waters.

Why does this matter? Because we’re all cycling between these grief landmarks. We don’t judge or criticize people for going through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression from other sources of grief. We don’t need to judge people’s grief of covid-19 losses and changes, either.

The best treatment for someone who is grieving is compassion, empathy, and support. Those might be in short supply these days. Still. When we see someone acting in denial or anger? There’s probably grief behind it. Let’s use our compassion for their grief instead of our judgment for their denial or our anger right back at theirs. Let’s be defined by our hope in God, not our grief at the world around us.

God, when I am grieving, guide me through. When I go past the different landmarks of grief, help me recognize them for what they are. When I interact with someone whose grief makes them hard to be with, help me act with compassion. In all grief, God, whether mine or someone else’s, sustain me in hope. Amen.

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Wondering what grief might look like right now? Below are some examples of pandemic-related grief:

Denial: “This isn’t as bad as it seems; it’s just a different flu!” “This is only happening in other places, to other people. It won’t happen here.” “Things will be back to normal soon!”

Anger: “How dare that person not wear a mask?” “How dare that person make me wear a mask?” “Our governor/president/CDC/WHO really bungled this. It’s all their fault.”

Bargaining: “I’ll probably make it just fine if I get sick, so it’s okay to take a lot of chances.” “It’s worth the risk to have restaurants, schools, and businesses open as usual as long as not too many people die.” “If we can just hold out until a vaccine develops, everything will be okay.”

Depression: “Everything is terrible now and I’m sad all the time.” “I can’t imagine a way forward through this.” “We’ll never recover.”

Acceptance: “This is our current situation and our current best understanding of how to promote public health. I’ll act with that in mind.” “This is the situation right now. It won’t be forever, but it is right now.”

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