It’s been three full weeks since my life was interrupted by COVID-19. March 13 is marked on my calendar with black permanent marker: “Last Day Teaching At School.” Each week since has carried the weight of a sucker-punch to the gut, from the news that schools would be closed the remainder of the year to the tightening restrictions of a statewide Stay-At-Home order from Virginia’s governor. I’m finding it hard to catch my breath with all the transitions.
Like many of you, I am battling a tidal wave of emotions that continue to knock me off balance, very similar to what I experienced in 2017 when my mom was battling lung cancer in her final weeks. Some days were manageable with the fringes of a “new normal” peeking through, as we adjusted and adapted to the news. Other days were nearly impossible to see past the muck and mire, the heaviness of darkness closing in.
Our world has been turned upside-down, inside out, and the status quo of the month before has faded like an old black-and-white photograph hidden away in a dusty shoebox. With each passing week, it becomes more difficult to remember the unadulterated joy we experienced and took for granted as we went about our daily lives.
Those simple moments were actually cornerstones of our existence at the time. Taking kids to extra-curricular activities. Sharing a family meal in a restaurant. Visiting a bookstore. Writing in a coffeeshop. Attending church. Greeting children with hugs and high fives as they enter the school building to start their day.
So many things taken for granted.
I realized my conflicting emotions and swirling sadness could be summarized with one simple word:
In my book, A Passion for Kindness, I explored this concept of grief, shining a light on those things we often choose to hide beneath a rug or sweep away unseen. Although each of us handle grief in different ways with varying timelines, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five common stages for those who grieve. What I’m experiencing in my own life right now might mirror what you are experiencing in yours.
I believe we may be grieving the loss of life as we knew it.
When the news first came out about this deadly virus, I think many of us shared the “it can’t happen to us” mentality. It was a problem happening somewhere else in the world. Heart-wrenching to imagine the horrors shown, from contamination to isolation. Seeing people wearing surgical masks in public seemed extreme as did the local and national shutdowns. Even when our own area recorded its first case of COVID-19, our lives were hardly impacted.
We worked. We played. Our life continued on. This was someone else’s problem, not ours.
Personally, my life was largely unaffected by the news in other countries. I keynoted a conference in early March and even though we were encouraged to keep our distance, I hugged every single person that opened their arms to me.
I was unafraid of the future. I was unaware of the catastrophic reality that would soon invade my world. I was unprepared for what would come next.
Denial of this highly contagious disease quickly turned to anger as we saw our basic rights being restricted. Don’t drive to work. Don’t go to the movies. Don’t have gatherings of 10 or more people and make sure to stand six feet apart from anyone near. Milestone moments were snatched away as people scrambled to make sense of the news. Vacations. Graduations. Birthdays. Weddings. Funerals. Life as we had known it just a month before was obliterated, with no end in sight.
People were angry.
And to be honest, I was a little angry, too.
The negativity shown on social media sparked debates between many on what could and could not be believed. Comparisons between communities and who was following which restrictions started to wear down even the most patient of people. There were no definitive answers for how to proceed, or how long it would last, and those organizations that tried to step their toes into uncharted waters felt the sting of the frigid water immediately. No matter what you said or how you said it, the anger of others bubbled over like boiling water left too long on the stove.
Basic behaviors, like visiting a beach on Spring Break, were banned, as we were reminded repeatedly that the best way to flatten the curve was to stay inside and away from others.
There was anger in the scarcity of resources like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and paper towels. There was anger in the changes of how we do business, from the frustration of creating a work-from-home environment to the learning curve of using new technologies remotely. There was anger in the exclusion of spending time with our loved ones who lived in another home.
But the anger started to dissipate, as it always does, and that’s when the bargaining began.
“What if I wear gloves and promise not to touch anyone?”
“What if I promise to wash my hands before I get there and right after I leave?”
The bargaining was relentless. Our 16-year-old son wanted to spend the night with his friends, a common occurrence that three weeks ago would have resulted in a quick nod of our heads and a reminder to thank his friend’s mom for hosting. Now it was full-fledged debate in our living room, the bargaining chip tossed back and forth.
The grief our son felt, missing out on quality time with his friends, was felt by us all. We wanted to accept his bargain, to allow the grief to subside, but the choice was not one we were willing to make. We showed him the statistics. We reminded him of the Stay-At-Home restrictions. We emphasized the reality that he could carry the virus with no symptoms shown, then unknowingly transfer the virus to a loved one with underlying conditions, resulting in the possibility of suffering and even death.
Our son slowly acquiesced, but the bargaining was brutal. We all wanted him to be happy. It was such a simple request, but we knew we had to be strong in our expectations. If the governor of our state mandated we must reduce the risk by staying home, then that is what we would do.
Bargaining resulted in the short end of the stick.
When you realize each day is repetition of the day before, it will wear you down. Even in the best of circumstances, the grief of losing your freedom – even temporarily – is enough to pull you apart emotionally. Some of my friends had added layers of grief: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of daily purpose in their lives.
Everyone experiences moments of depression, including the most optimistic people in our world. It’s a normal part of life. For those that battle depression daily, events such as these can drag them further down the spiral of instability. I know this to be true because my own mother battled this mood disorder for most of her life.
Depression is another step in the grieving process, so it’s OK to admit you are there. For some the transition lasts a few hours or days; for others it may linger for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes it has an ebb and flow. Other times it has no rhyme or reason. You may start your day thinking you are handing everything well, then suddenly you are crushed by the unexplainable weight of the unknown.
You are not alone.
It may be nearly impossible to reach out to others during this stage as your focus might be simply getting out of the bed and getting dressed for the day.
Give yourself grace.
Give others grace, too.
It’s OK to not know what to do next.
It’s OK to not have any answers right now.
It’s OK to not be busy, taking time for yourself.
It. Is. OK.
It’s OK to not have a clue how to help your child with schoolwork and it’s OK to miss your students to the point of tears. It’s OK to follow the guidelines given and ignore those who may chastise you for it. It’s OK to dream of what you’re going to do when this quarantine is lifted and you can finally see your family again.
It’s OK to just be.
See, we are all in this together. As I shared in my last post about my child’s time in quarantine with swine flu: “There is something strangely comforting in knowing it’s a shared experience.”
The acknowledgment that we are all struggling in this space paradoxically empowers us to move forward when the time is right. We can’t possibly keep battling the weight of the world in any of the other stages. They are exhausting, energy-depleting phases, that are part of the journey, but not the journey in and of itself.
Acceptance gives us strength to carry on.
In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ research, she noted one common thread that was woven through each stage of grief in those who were dying or near death. Even in the worst of circumstances, there was always hope that things would get better. There was hope for an end to the pain and suffering. There was hope that their experiences were for a greater good.
I believe that we share that same hope as we battle this worldwide crisis of COVID-19. No matter where we are in our stages of grief, it is hope that will guide our way.
Similar to kindness, I have a choice on whether to embrace hope or not. Hope is that light at the end of the tunnel, that rainbow after a thunderstorm that reminds us that everything will be OK in the end.
Will life be different after this interruption? Guaranteed.
But you know what? I think I will be different, too. As I grapple with the changing tides in this sea of uncertainty, I am discovering my strength in the process.
While I can’t hug you, I can send you a message that you are loved.
While I can’t share a meal with you, I can have one delivered to your doorstep.
While I can’t ease the woes of this crisis, I can remind you that you are not alone.
And when I sense that you are feeling weak, I can show you how you are strong.
May we be a bit kinder with our words and actions during this time. May we recognize those who are grieving the loss of things unseen and extend an extra dose of grace and love. May we realize that what will define this experience in the history books of our great-grandchildren will not be the manner of which we suffered, but the extraordinary ways we survived.
And for those who, like me, rely on faith in times of need, may the verse below provide hope and encouragement:
“Be strong and couragous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged. For the Lord, your God, is with you, wherever you go.
~ Joshua 1:9
Be strong and courageous. Look out for one another. Shine a light on the good of the world.
We will get through this together.