The pandemic began for me on a cool spring morning in upstate New York. It was just a couple of weeks before my 30th birthday.
My partner and I had just canceled all of our vacation plans for said birthday. We were watching the news as our state began issuing stay at home orders. In a matter of days, March 13th descended and New York state was in a total lockdown.
All non-essential businesses were closed and restaurants were reduced to take out. My partner’s career in massage therapy disappeared overnight. My career in mental health was soared to the point of burnout while being told we were essential.
Crazy how it took a pandemic for the needs of the mental health community to be addressed as essential. I digress.
Six months into the pandemic I realized I was exhibiting behavior very similar to individuals I had worked with in grief processing. I didn’t follow this pattern in a neat form. I fell from one stage to the next, came back for some more of this and that, and ended right where I wanted to be.
This all began with the first stage, denial.
“Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving
A River in Egypt We All Float Down
As the lockdown descended upon New York state, my organization kicked into overdrive.
I worked as a Peer Specialist for a local non-profit. Every day those first couple of weeks was similar to being on a rollercoaster. Except with a blindfold, as you never knew where the drops and turns may arise.
We went from seeing our peers sparingly to seeing our peers through only screens in seven days. We began running our community support groups over video chats. My one to one meetings with peers became Zoom meetings in my office I had never spent more than an hour in at a time.
I ignored it all.
I ignored that my life was molding itself into something so different I had no words to describe what it was anymore. I began losing motivation and losing the empathetic spark that made me the civil servant I love.
Denial is typically the first phase of grieving. It gives our minds time to catch up to all that we are experiencing. Denial gives us a buffer before reality has to fully set in.
I find it important to point out here that these stages of grief are not meant to be viewed in a negative manner. Grieving does not always feel great, this is true. Grieving is natural and valid and individualized for each of us, also true.
“Keep in mind that anger does not require us to be very vulnerable. However, it tends to be more socially acceptable than admitting we are scared.” — Jodi Clarke, VeryWell Mind
Rage Against the Mind
I am really good at being angry. In the realm of anger and grudges, I hold first place most times. Through meditation and Buddhism, I found a way to positively channel this anger.
Until the pandemic hit, of course.
Then daily meditations became weekly, monthly, never. Mornings of silence and reflection turned into days of non-stop noise. Any time I dived into my own thoughts for long, the rage bubbled up.
When we are grieving, anger is generally the first emotion we allow others to see once we navigate through our denial. This emotion comes out swinging and takes no mercy on those closest to you. While we may actually be needing comfort and soothing, our anger can push away those closest to us.
As my denial began to wear off, I was tricked into thinking everything was fine. How could everything not be fine?
I had only left the job I had dreamed of to work from home. Oh, and my grandmother passed away in Southern California while I said goodbye to her via an iPhone screen the day before my partner’s birthday because I couldn’t travel out of New York state. My partner and I were experiencing more homophobic backlash in a three month time period than I have on my own in over a decade of being out. My black brothers and sisters are being murdered by my “so-called” brothers in blue. The world is shrouded in pandemic life.
So, as I said, everything is fine.
It had to be fine. I wasn’t able to release what I truly felt. The loss and grief, the frustration and confusion, the lack of direction and motivation all sounded better when you referred to it as anger.
It was official. I had hit my period of burn out. Coupled with a dose of grieving a life that didn’t even resemble mine anymore and it isn’t a hard stretch to see where my mind wandered to next.
“We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving
Before I discuss my descent into the stages of depression, I want to touch on my levels of bargaining. This stage, for me, was felt throughout the other stages of grief. As I began grieving more for the life I had lost, I would find myself bargaining with myself.
I would say that if I could just make it through one day with no angry outbursts at someone who offended something in me then I would not need help.
If I was able to get up today and do more than plop in an office, aka my spare bedroom now, then I wouldn’t need to talk about the immense weight of my emotions inside.
When we are experiencing the bargaining stage of grief, we are pleading with a power greater than ourselves to change the outcome of an already certain situation.
I adapted this into pleading with myself to be well. I was determined to continue this facade of okay because I didn’t want to face the shame of letting others down. How could I support all who came to me for this if I was falling apart inside?
“Impermanence and selflessness are not negative aspects of life, but the very foundation on which life is built. Impermanence is the constant transformation of things. Without impermanence, there can be no life.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Melting Into the Melancholy
Depression was the easiest stage of grief for me to fall into. She is a familiar friend. I danced through months of depression without ever acknowledging to myself or others that my once crisp mind was struggling.
Kessler and Ross state that depression enters the stages of grief after we begin to face reality. We are faced with a loss that is no longer hidden behind denial or rage. Bargaining with beings more powerful than ourselves has also proved futile.
All that is left is to feel. And felt I did.
I allowed myself the time to feel the weight of change on my shoulders. I felt the losses I had endured and the physical and mental health barriers I ran into. I cried more often than not for a few weeks and finally allowed other areas of my life that were in need of grieving to see the light of day.
Depression in the stages of grief visits us once our imagination has calmed and reality is here to stay. We have pleaded for different outcomes, been angry at the lack of change in outcome, and even ignored that change is coming. Now, we feel the weight of change on us and we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
With this depression comes drawing inward for most. We tend to isolate ourselves from others and stop doing the things that bring us joy. It is important to remember this will not last forever. Hope is a much-needed life raft in the dark seas of depression.
Acceptance in the New Year
The rollercoaster that is grief ends with acceptance. This acceptance does not arrive on the heels of forgetting. Entering the stage of acceptance does not mean you are not still sad and missing that individual or life you once had.
Acceptance means we are no longer running away from what is and embracing those feelings associated with our grief.
I rang in the New Year with acceptance. I have accepted that our world right now is not okay. The life I always envisioned is being changed by the week and I have learned to embrace this. My emotions and feelings are valid and I have also embraced this.
As we move into another year of uncertainty, I challenge you to embrace your new life-whatever that may look like. Explore the emotions and feelings that 2020 gave you. Maybe even apply the principles of these stages and see if you may have felt them without being aware.
I challenge you to accept what is and make space for the emotions this brings up. When trying to be okay when your world is falling apart, remember you are human. You can’t pour from an empty cup and embracing all the parts of you helps connect you with others.
We are more than our grief and our emotions, but we are not less than for experiencing them.