I resumed looking at Facebook a few months back after a year’s absence. I wanted to post links to my blog and had no intention of doing anything more. After only a week of pandemic self-isolation, I found myself longing for connection and some good laughs and links to articles the PBS Newshour doesn’t cover. I found some of what I wanted, and I’ve been spending an hour or two each day looking at people’s posts. I’ve noticed something. Maybe this is another example of me blurting out the blatantly obvious.
We’re all grieving.
Even we introverts who relish the quiet, unrushed, alone time grieve. Even we folks who couldn’t work before Covid-19 emerged. Even we who relish the revitalization of long languished relationships and are reconnecting by phone and Zoom and Facebook and whatnot. Even we who aren’t ill with the virus, or heartbroken over the passing of ones close to us grieve. None of us are strangers to the experience of grief. We’ve lost family and friends, watched dear ones suffer, lived through crises. This pandemic has brought another grief into our lives, one that’s so widespread across all people of the earth it feels as if we’ll never be the same. We won’t.
Living is change. We can never be what we were a day ago, a year ago, pre-pandemic-ago. On the one hand, accepting this liberates us—we can free ourselves from aspects of our lives that we long to unburden. On the other hand, accepting this leaves us mourning gladnesses we’ve lost, for the life we no longer lead and the people we no longer see. Change. A double-edged sword. Many of us are struggling to find meaning in the dramatic changes we’re experiencing.
Just a few days ago, a friend posted this on his blog: “What I have is a nagging, undefined suspicion that the human compulsion to why, why, why, why, WHY all the time, this brutal, ever disappointing quest for the point of sentience and suffering might be part of the problem.” Perhaps it is. I wrote what may have come across as a facile response, but actually came from deeply reflective place: “Perhaps the search for meaning is what gives our lives meaning. Perhaps the search for meaning is how we become who we are, an ever-becoming. Answers are future-oriented. Questions are now-oriented. All we have is the now.”
For the now to feel like more than just a slog, just an experience of change period, I’m substituting the more spiritually-laden (some would say self-deluding) word transformation.
Transformation denotes change, but it connotes beautiful and generative change. It evokes thoughts of beauty emerging from emptiness or ugliness, of a stunning sculpture emerging from a block of stone, of butterflies. Yet transformation requires the willingness to feel pain. Well known shaman, Andrew Harvey pointed out, “The very things we wish to avoid, neglect, and flee turn out to be the ‘prima materia’ from which all growth comes.” We must experience the pain of change to be transformed. We must grieve.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross articulated five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, and her work has been elaborated upon by many, including David Kessler who advocates for a sixth stage of grief. Kubler-Ross’s five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kessler’s sixth is: finding meaning. While knowing about these stages doesn’t resolve grief (which must be felt and moved through, not just conceptually understood), it does help to know that the emotional field we’re all stumbling around on is common to all us humans in times of loss. Sometimes seeing how our experiences resonate with the wisdom others have shared helps the overwhelm abate a little. At least it does for me.
As I’ve scanned Facebook over the past month or so through the pandemic’s upending of our lives, I’ve sensed that I’m actually witnessing many friends’ grieving through these tiny digital windows into their minds. Perhaps I’m imagining it through the lens of my own grieving? I’m also uncertain as to whether I’m imagining an emergence toward the stages of acceptance, and even a few that are flirting with finding meaning in it all, transformation.
Nobody moves through stages of grief sequentially, or in the same ways. Some of us get stuck in one stage for a long time. Or boomerang around two or more stages repeatedly. Eventually, if we don’t stay stuck, we move through and transform. It might be easier to recognize for ourselves what stage of grief we’re experiencing if we only had to deal with one grief at a time. The tricky thing about life, however, is that most of us grapple with grief arising from multiple experiences all at the same time. I’m still grieving my uncle’s passing (it’s been 2+ years), the loss of my daily life as I used to live it (it’s been 8+ years culminating in all sorts of losses), the more recent loss of an important relationship, and now the pandemic which offers a myriad of experiences to grieve over. It’s complicated because, for me at least, I’m experiencing different stages of grief over differing things, and it’s a challenge to sort out what’s coming from where. I need to do this so I don’t get stuck. Like most of us, I’m engaged in untangling my emotional responses to the pandemic, and Facebook—bizarrely because I kind of hate it—is helping me.
Most of the Facebook posts I saw at the beginning of the pandemic (when it hit the US, that is) were full of the shock, fear, and confusion we all feel when faced with something terrible. It’s the freeze moment in the fear-cascade before the fight or flight kicks in, (and returns if fight or flight fail as options). Lots of “wow” and “sad” emojis in response to re-posted articles (frustrates me that there’s not an emoji for “confused” and “scared” on Facebook). There were lots of “WTF”comments too.
Soon, denial kicked in. So many “Seriously?” comments attached to article and video links about the ways in which certain leaders are handling the pandemic (pick almost any link to clips of POTUS on the White House Daily Briefing). My favorite post, on the lighter side of denial (I’m not even sure I’d categorize this as denial…maybe it belongs in acceptance?) was a tweet from March 13th: “The scene at Walmart today: everyone else is buying enough panic food for months and this older gentleman rolls up with a cart full of 100 pounds of wild bird seed. I don’t know if I’ve ever respected someone more in my life.”
Humor is a close companion to denial and can help us through as we move toward resolution. Along with my “this can’t possibly be happening” thoughts, I laughed at hundreds of posts about securing needed quarantine supplies, being trapped at home, and having to educate one’s own children. Three of my favorites: “Back in my day…there was so much toilet paper, people used to literally string it up in the trees of their enemies!” “Somewhere there’s a kid who brought the class hamster home for the weekend. Their parents are not happy!!!” and “On the bright side, I am no longer calling this shelter-in-place. I am now an artist-in-residence.”
Angry posts wove their way into threads regularly too. Not only many about our leaders, but also many about people who continue to ignore CDC guidelines, or those who hoard food and supplies. One choice angry meme I recall was an image of a pissed-off looking cat with the words, “Some people just need a high-five in the face. With a hammer.” I can’t recall whether that one was directed at Donald Trump or someone else. Another was an image of a grocery cart full of toilet plungers that read, “To all you Numb Nuts that are hoarding all the toilet paper. I’m buying up all the plungers. Check mate bitches.” Another showed someone making the thumbs-up sign and saying, “Congrats to the Corona Virus for being the first thing made in China to last longer than a month.” Perhaps the most disturbing of all was one of the “boomer remover” memes that showed a young person, shirt over their face, holding an aerosol can labeled “Covid-19.” The words: “Don’t mind me. Just spraying some boomer remover.”
Even some posts that made me laugh had an angry, I’m-at-the-end-of-my-rope edge to them. One pictured Jack Nicholson in a family photo from the film The Shining with the caption, “Isolation time with the family. What could go wrong?” A quarantine daily schedule listed this for the 8-10 AM slot: “The kids act out Lord of the Flies while I sleep.” Another said, “If you see the kids outside pulling weeds and crying, mind ya business…They on a field trip.”
The bargaining stage of grief revealed itself too, in so many forms. Just fill-in the blanks: “If I ______, then ______.” From strategies to stay socially connected, to mania-tinged declarations of super-productivity, to tips for shopping, cooking, and more, we’re all talking about how to manage. Some are obvious, helpful bargains to stay physically healthy: “If I stay home, then I won’t get sick or contribute to the spread.” A lot are about making the best of a bad situation—for better or worse. So many Chopped memes: “In today’s basket you have a can of tuna fish, 3 assorted condiments with questionable expiration dates, some trail mix you found in a backpack and a can of the only vegetable left in the stores last week–okra. Your 30 minutes begin now!”
Depression creeps in. Some people’s posts are crystal clear in expressing depressed feelings. One friend posted two days ago, “I’m coming up on six weeks on being at home. I think, maybe, I need human interaction…help my sanity :)” Another, just a few days ago, wrote, “I have no energy. I sleep 9 hours and wake up exhausted. I get out of bed with difficulty, and then just want to get right back in.” After the governor of their state extended the stay at home order for another month, another friend posted, “I think I’m going to die.”
Others’ feelings of depression show up more subtly, and are often tangled up with the bargaining stage of grief, as in “If I do _____, I’ll feel better.” There’s a fine line between activities that distract us for awhile from being overwhelmed by uncomfortable feelings and the attempts to avoid those feelings altogether. I have truly enjoyed, for example, the array of videos families have made, most particularly the English family’s version of Les Miserables in quarantine, and the many images and links to friends’ creative work, from cooking to watercolor painting. I love that amidst profound and painful challenge, so many find ways to have fun.
I think that a lot of the urge we feel to be productive during this time is healthy, but it can quickly become pressure as it’s fueled by advertising and social media. How much busy is too much busy? I sometimes feel distressed by posts from people who seem to have replicated their pre-pandemic rush-rush lives. I wonder if they’re keeping themselves frantically busy to avoid feelings they don’t want to feel. Someone recently posted a long list of their day’s accomplishments (impressive and selfless) and said, “My brain is telling me to keep going, but my body is saying STOP!” One effect of looking at social media is that we can end up adding a layer of worseness on onto our cakes of grief. Seeing others’ seemingly making lemonade out of lemons makes can make us feel extra crappy (apologies for the mixed metaphors). One friend said, “I hate Facebook. Everybody else is doing all this great stuff. It makes me feel deeply inadequate.”
I’m glad I’m seeing more posts recently about it being okay to slow down. To move through grief, we all need pauses in our pressured lives so there’s time to reflect.
Some of the grieving process also shows up as humor. Just as humor can be a diversion from fear, it can also be a diversion from emotional pain. The sheer number of posts about alcohol leave me wondering how many are self-medicating for depression. That I got some much needed laughter from them made me wonder whether I was doing the same! One conflicted post read: “Quarantine drinking game…every time you hear “Mom” take a drink. Just kidding don’t do that, you will die.” Another said: “I’m giving up drinking for a month. Sorry, bad punctuation. I’m giving up. Drinking for a month.” My favorite appeared on my screen as I’d sunken to a particular low one night, binge-watching The Umbrella Academy while I sipped a single malt scotch and ate fruit loops from the box (This new diet I’m on has banned just about every crunchy snack I used to enjoy, but I discovered that fruit loops have zero oxylates!). The letter read: “Dear Netflix, Can you please turn off the ‘are you still watching’ feature? We are in quarantine, so yes we are still watching. I don’t need this kind of judgment in this time of uncertainty. If you could please update it with a ‘are your sure you want to eat that’ notice that would be much more helpful at this time. Sincerely, Me.”
Most recently, I’ve noticed a gradual shift in what I’m seeing on social media. A shift into acceptance. Some of these reflect the exhaustion depression creates and highlight a resigned acceptance of what is. One friend posted this meme, “With everything that has happened I have hit the point where, if aliens showed up in the sky tomorrow, I would be like, “sure, why the hell not!” Others reflect a growing realization that all the pressure we’ve been putting on ourselves to remain highly functional, productive, and even creative in the midst of this massive change in our lives may be making us more miserable. A few days back, just as I’d started writing this essay, a friend posted an image that read, “Whatever you manage to do today is enough.” (LOL; it’s why I am only just posting this essay now.) Another posted: “Relax. Nothing is under control.”
Recently, I’m noticing more posts that seem to reflect Kessler’s sixth stage of grief, finding meaning. We don’t have to find meaning to move through our grief, but it does help. I feel that “change” becomes “transformation” when there’s meaning embedded in it, and I for one wish for this experience to be a time of transformation.
Two days ago, a clear-sighted and hard-hitting piece published on Medium showed up in at least a dozen posts on my feed. Blogger Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote, “the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: what in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: what happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but the Great Pause.”
A friend posted her thoughts about her daily tarot card pick, “I realized it could be a message about the world wide nature of this plague. We come from all cultures and traditions and are united by having to deal with the virus. It will be something we all have in common as an experience…” Another wrote, “For weeks I’ve heard people saying “I can’t wait for things to be back to normal.” I remember saying it a few times myself. But as I’ve thought about our current situation I’ve realized how much I don’t want things to go back to the way they were…” and listed ten transformations of experience she hopes she gains. She said at the end of the long post that she hopes she will: “be more thankful, love harder, and truly appreciate all the blessings each day that were so easily overlooked just a mere few weeks ago. If someone tells you they love you, take it to heart!”
I haven’t posted it yet, and it’s not a meme and not new, but I always seem to return to Dougie Maclean in my tough times, especially his song, “This Love Will Carry.” For me, love is where I find meaning.
It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame
And dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came
There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain
There’s heartbreak and heart-ache in the shadow of the flame
The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall
And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all
Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near
And you look down at your blistered hands as turns another year
These days are golden, they must not waste away
Our time is like that flower and soon it will decay
And though by storms we’re weakened, uncertainty is sure
And like the coming of the dawn it’s ours for evermore
But this love will carry, this love will carry me
I know this love will carry me
This love will carry, this love will carry me
I know this love will carry me
It’s appropriate that we grieve, and honor the past. We do it for loved ones who have passed on, and we need to do it for all the losses we experience. We need to say goodbye, to feel and honor what is now gone, so that we can continue our personal transformations unburdened by the ropes and handcuffs of our pasts. It’s hard to grieve alone, and I’m glad we can witness one another’s processes and offer support, even if it’s only by clicking emojis.