What We've Lost, How We'll Recover
We have lost a lot to COVID-19, but the suffering of other people is continuous with our suffering, just as their happiness is continuous with ours. We will recover.
Posted May 20, 2020
In happier times, on a flight home from New York, I read an essay by a rabbi who went to console a man whose wife had died. The rabbi didn’t know the man very well, but he stopped off on the way and bought coffee and bagels. In the face of loss, the rabbi reckoned, there was very little he could say, but coffee and bagels were always a good idea.
The gesture was small and beautiful. The coffee and bagels signaled connection, care, and compassion. Today, we need all of these things as we gingerly lift our COVID-19 restrictions, survey the carnage, and figure out what we lost.
We lost a lot. We all grieve something: loved ones who died, financial security, peace of mind, our understanding of our place in the world. For many of us, what survived is greater than what is lost, but we feel our losses like physical pain.
In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We often deny loss, simply refusing to believe it has occurred. As reality is undeniable, anger erupts. We bargain with a god we might not believe in. This strategy fails, leading to depression. Ultimately, we accept that life will inexplicably carry on, even in the face of our loss. How can this be?
The stages of grief do not occur in sequence. They come and go. Several stages occur at the same time. Some never make an appearance. So be it. We cannot negotiate with emotions nor berate them for failing to follow our rules.
Despite these complexities, Kübler-Ross’s framework is a gift. It provides a language for many aspects of grief. It normalises reactions that might otherwise feel shameful. It reassures us that while individual grief is always unique, other people have walked this path before us. Thousands of people. Millions. Billions.
All of Kübler-Ross’s “stages” are apparent today as COVID-19 moves through our cities and countries with a terrible power that has shaken all of us and broken some of us. Anxiety segues into grief as we understand the magnitude of the outbreak, feel its destructiveness in our bones, and see the shape of the world it leaves in its wake.
How can we cope with this? Are the anxiety and grief too piercing, too pervasive, and just too big for us to handle? No.
First, anxiety. We are always bigger than our anxiety. The greater the anxiety, the smaller the steps needed to control it. We need to follow public health guidance about controlling the transmission of the virus. The experts, if not the politicians, know what they are saying. Follow their advice. It applies to you. There is real comfort in this.
From a psychological perspective, we need to manage our intake of media, especially social media. Resist the siren call of “worst-case thinking”. It is useful to stay informed, but it is not useful to follow every statistic from every country every day. We cannot carry the weight of a global pandemic on our individual shoulders. Enough is enough: stay informed but do not obsess.
Do something. We cannot always think our way out of anxiety. Sometimes, we need to shut the laptop, stand up, leave the phone behind, and physically do something.
Go outside if you can. Lose yourself in running, swimming, knitting, or any activity that makes the world melt away, if only for an hour. Quiet absorption nourishes the soul. Thoreau was right: “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you; but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” Happiness might be too much to hope for right now, so let’s settle for absorbed quietude and the peace of mind it brings.
And what about grief? There are no cures for grief, and nor should there be, but time and compassion are powerful salves. Grief passes. Unthinkable as it seems, we find a way to live in our new, different, impoverished world. Recognising feelings of grief helps us to work through them or simply observe them as time passes. There is a Buddhist saying: “Don’t just do something; sit there.” Today, we need to sit with grief, our own and that of others.
Compassion is the second salve. Compassion is both a feeling and a skill. We can practice compassion towards ourselves (we are doing our best) and others (so are they). Buddhism speaks of “non-self”, the idea that our “self” is less concrete than we imagine it to be. Our “self” changes constantly. We merge into other people all the time.
The spread of COVID-19 and the anxiety associated with it demonstrate just how true this is. Humanity functions like a single organism: we live and die together. This is a powerful argument in favour of compassion towards all sentient beings, including ourselves. The suffering of other people is continuous with our suffering, just as their happiness is continuous with ours.
As anxiety turns to grief, our communities will save us. Many communities are sadly smaller but resolutely stronger. Soon, we will visit each other again and sit with each other’s grief. There will be pain and coping, loss and survival, crying and singing.
And, like before, there will be coffee and bagels.