The 6 Stages of Grief: What Death Can Teach Us About Life with COVID-19
What do death and quarantine have in common? Quite a lot as it goes! In this article, author Ngozi Weller explores how we can use the lessons from the grief cycle to help manage our transition through these difficult times.
It’s been over a month since the UK entered lock-down in a bid to slow the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, and we still have no real indication of when it will end. Yet even though the days are slow and long, the time has passed by quickly. There’s no escaping it, the world has changed. The way of life that we once took for granted is gone and has been replaced by something altogether different. Gone are the warm embraces of friends, the casual coffees and the long lunches. And in their place, we have Zoom meetings, virtual pub quizzes and regimented daily exercise. It’s all a little peculiar, isn’t it?
Despite the welcome embrace of the spring sunshine, I occasionally find myself lamenting this COVIDuation, wanting something… more. When I went for a walk with my family this weekend, my first foray into the big wide world since recovering from the dreaded C-virus, I bumped into three sets of friends and neighbours. As lovely as it was to see them, it felt strange, fake in a way, to be deliberately standing 12 feet apart when typically, a hug or a kiss would be our usual greeting. My 11-year-old daughter has also been experiencing these conflicting emotions. She admitted to me that she had deliberately “forgotten” to join her cheerleading teammates on a Zoom call because not being able to see them in person was too upsetting.
It occurred to me (in the shower, where I have the majority of my Eureka! moments) that what we are experiencing is akin to any other significant loss. It’s grief, we are grieving. With any change that is forced upon us, where we no longer have autonomy over our decision making, we experience a loss that can be compared to death. Now I’m not suggesting that being separated from our friends and our favourite social hangouts is in any way as painful as losing a loved one, but the emotional journey that we follow is similar. Thus, we can draw lessons from how we deal with grief that can help us adjust to life in a COVID world. To this end we can use the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, otherwise known as the 5 stages of grief model, to help us and our workforce adapt to change and move towards success.
Kübler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her renowned book On Death and Dying and introduced us to the concept of the Change Curve. The model is a helpful approach to understanding the stages of grief but also widely applies to most cases and situations relating to change. The model proposes 5 stages in the change cycle and in understanding these stages, we can start to provide meaningful support to one another during this difficult time.
This is typically the first stage in the change process as it is the result of being confronted with the horrific truth, whether that be death or quarantine. When faced with the stark reality of what’s occurring, it is natural to deny or dismiss the event or its impact on you personally. It’s a knee-jerk self-defence mechanism to shield us from potential pain. Cast your mind back a couple of months to when the coronavirus was still just an alarming news piece coming from China and mainland Europe. Think of the off-hand comments from pundits and politicians alike about all the fuss over a “simple cold”. All the research and speculation that went into justifying why the average adult needn’t worry about COVID-19. Although we could see what was happening to our European neighbours, our politicians continued to bury their head in the sand as we hoped and prayed that we could get away with inaction. Unsurprisingly, this stage is usually short-lived as you can only hide from reality for so long before it begins to bite. By now, most have moved beyond this stage of denial around the pandemic. However, there are still some who are desperate to cling to the belief that this is a lot of fuss over nothing. If any of your colleagues are still stuck in this phase, don’t lose hope, it will pass. Fear and ignorance are at play so treat them with patience and firmness, as you might a tantrumming toddler. If they are putting themselves and others in danger by flouting any of your company rules on social distancing or working whilst ill, then remind them of the consequences and follow your agreed disciplinary procedures.
Anger is what follows when we realise that this undesirable situation is not going away. It is natural at this stage to look for someone to blame for our troubles so that the feelings of discomfort that we have can be shifted away from us and placed squarely at the feet of A.N. Other. Nobody demonstrates this stage more clearly than President Trump, who has blamed the Democrats, the media, Obama, China and even the World Health Organization for America’s alarming coronavirus death toll. It’s during this stage that we start to get annoyed with the technology in our home offices, frustrated at the lack of adherence to social distancing at supermarkets and outraged at the ineptitude of politicians to lead us through the crisis. When dealing with someone in the anger phase, it is important to allow them to be angry. It is natural and to be expected when facing something of this magnitude.
Eventually the anger dissipates, and we realise that blaming someone for the mess that we find ourselves in does nothing to improve our situation. At this stage, we seek to delay or mitigate the pain of the inevitable by negotiating our situation and reaching a point of compromise. If you are working with someone who is in the negotiating phase, then use sensitivity and common sense to determine if there are compromises that can reasonably be made. This may mean being flexible on their work arrangements or providing additional support so that they can continue working safely during this crisis.
Ah depression, my old friend! It is at this stage that sadness, fear, regret and guilt all come home to roost. When dealing with the passing of a loved one this may manifest in lamenting over all the missed opportunities to say goodbye or remind them of your love. For those of us navigating the threat of COVID-19, this extended period of isolation, separated from our usual comforts and human connections means that the threat of entering the depressive stage is very real. When the anger turns inwards, it becomes sadness. At this stage, it’s tempting to stay in bed all day and withdraw from the world. Furloughed employees are particularly at risk here, as their usual routines no longer apply. It’s important that we maintain as many touch-points with friends and colleagues as possible. Use technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to replicate the kind of office social interactions that are missing. Team meetings, pub quizzes and general chit-chats all help to remind us that we are not alone in our isolation.
Contrary to what one would assume, acceptance does not mean that all is forgiven and that we are happy with the situation. Rather, it is an acceptance of the fact that we cannot change the situation and that we must learn to adjust to this new normal. The aim is to support our colleagues to reach the acceptance phase as quickly as possible, because it is at this stage that we can start to perform and become productive once more. This is where we find ways to take control of the situation, such as by washing our hands regularly, wearing masks and carefully observing social distancing.
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
The Hidden Meaning
There is no evidence to suggest that these stages are sequential or indeed finite. Although most will cycle through each in turn, it is also the case that we can bounce between stages at any given time. But one thing is certain, the only way through it is … through it. Fighting our feelings at each stage only serves to make that stage longer and more painful than it need be. The goal is to reach acceptance as soon as possible, without judgment or reservation. As leaders in business, our role is to foster an environment where it’s ok to experience all of these stages. Model and encourage openness and honesty. Practise compassion and understanding, recognising that people will all be at different stages on their journey to acceptance.
But what comes next? David Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief and co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. He suggests a sixth stage in the cycle that is worthy of mention: meaning. In order to move beyond merely surviving this pandemic, we need to find meaning and purpose in all the suffering and loss. For some, this process has already begun as people are appreciating the joys of living life more simply, less materialistically and at a slower pace. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from quarantine. For instance, many companies that were hesitant to allow agile working now recognise that their staff are more than up to it. I look forward to seeing how the more progressive businesses adapt their regular practises as a result of this pandemic. My hope is that, when this is all over, we don’t race to return to “business as usual”. We deserve better than that, we’ve earnt it.
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 those depths.
At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.