Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Understanding the 5 Stages of Grief and How You are Handling Isolation

“We don't heal in isolation, but in community.”― S. Kelley Harrell, Gift of the Dreamtime - Reader's Companion

            In California, it’s day 7 of quarantine since Gov. Newsom ordered everyone to stay home. However, the state and country had started closing down public gatherings and places for nearly a week prior. Many people have been adjusting to isolation and a different way of life.

            As we continue to take this day by day, I’ve been seeing how this is affecting everyone differently. People need community and were not meant to be isolated.

            Last week my cousin, who is in her final year of college, moved in with me. It was a rash decision because of the fear and loneliness she was feeling from being in a house by herself with no school or work to go to. She was about seven hours from home and was having panic attacks almost daily. My mom convinced her to come be with family and live with me, and since then I’ve been watching my cousin struggle with the adjustment.

            It’s not that we don’t like living together. But she had a whole life at school. She had friends who she saw every day. She loved her work and even said she had a great, caring boss. Whenever she’d go out to eat, she’d always have a group of people to go with. She had her own room, a routine, and a community. And now all of that is gone.

            It occurred to me she was experiencing post-grad depression, similar to what I had experienced when I graduated, except that it was happening before graduation. During my last year of college, me and my roommates made it count. We went out a lot. We laughed together all the time. We had a final dinner together, and even went to Disneyland as our last roomie excursion. We got to say farewell. And even then, it was hard living life without them when I went back home.

            My cousin didn’t get to experience any of this. She just got plucked out, as she’s been calling it. Though her story may not be the same as everyone’s, I think that what she’s feeling is relatable to everyone who was plucked out of what their normal life looked like. As I’ve been talking with her, I noticed that she’s been going through the 5 stages of grief, which typically relates to the loss of a loved one, but really can be applied to any kind of loss.

            On Psych Central, Julie Axelrod writes, “The 5 stages of grief and loss are: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them.” I think that last part is an important caveat. We do not all grieve the same, but when we experience loss, we do grieve.

            With my cousin’s permission (more like I told her I would write about her, and she said she figured I would), I want to layout her 5 stages to hopefully help others better understand where you might be.

Stage 1 Denial and Isolation

            “Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, numbing us to our emotions. We block out the words and hide from the facts. We start to believe that life is meaningless, and nothing is of any value any longer,” says Axelrod.

            When my cousin arrived at my apartment, she didn’t believe she was going to stay permanently. Though we had planned for her to move in after she graduated, she harbored hope her school would open up and she’d go back and return to her normal life. Given the state of things, we knew that was highly unlikable.

            Still, she waited until receiving an email that stated school would be online for the rest of the semester. Even after having that information, and doing a lot of research on the coronavirus and what’s happening in the world, she still couldn’t believe yet that this was her new reality so soon. I know she continued to harbor hope that somehow soon everything would be normal again.

Stage 2 Bargaining

            This was her stage 2, but for others it could be different. Axelrod explains, “The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control through a series of “If only” statements… Guilt often accompanies bargaining. We start to believe there was something we could have done differently…”

            Over the course of the next few days, I told my cousin she had to let her landlord know she was moving out, and that I had to let my landlord know she was moving in. She wasn’t ready for this. Now she was thinking she had made a mistake in coming so soon. That she should’ve stayed there and waited it out. That if she were there right now, she’d be with her friends and believed her life would retain a sense of normalcy. She thought maybe she should just go back.

            Through her bargaining, we talked about what the week had been like before she left. She was alone, scared, and having panic attacks. As the virus has been spreading more and quarantine measures have been set in place, I asked her what she would be doing right now if she had stayed home. She said she’d be even more lonely and scared. That since her job reduced their staff, and she was too scared to go to work anyway, she probably wouldn’t have been seeing her friends.

            I realized how hard this must be for her, and that she needed to process this. To help her process, we spent a night exchanging stories. I told her all about my last year of college, my favorite memories, and little things I loved about living with my old roommates. She told me about her friends and many of their inside jokes. I explained to her how sad it was to have those roommates in my life daily, and then suddenly living alone without them. She related to that feeling.

Stage 3 Anger

            Which is why she woke up angry the next day.

            “As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger,” says Axelrod.

            My cousin is not an explosive angry person. She keeps all of her bad feelings internal, while externalizing all of her laughter and humor. The day after we had spent the night exchanging stories and looking at the reality of what her life would’ve been like if she had stayed where she was, she said to me, “I woke up angry. And I don’t know why.”

            I gave her some suggestions as to what she was angry at. She simply balled her fists and said, “I don’t know. But I’m angry.” That was pretty much the extent of that.

            For others, anger might happen a lot longer, and in a far more obvious way. Or maybe even a subtle one. For those whose lives have completely altered during this time, you have a lot to be angry at. Maybe you’ve been forced to let go of employees. Maybe you’re financially hurting. Maybe you don’t know how you’re going to feed your family, or you don’t have enough money to stock up on piles of toilet paper. Or even worse, you can't find any toilet paper anywhere.

            Or maybe it’s simply that you loved the way you were living your life and now you can’t live that way anymore. You can’t socialize. You can’t go to the gym. You may gain weight and become far more unhealthy with those stock piles of pasta and alfredo sauce (seriously, you all are terrible; I miss alfredo sauce). You have to stay home with crazy kids all day. You have to stay home with crazy parents. You have no more routine. Your life feels so much more empty, and for most, you are incredibly bored. Don’t worry, the internet is still a funny place.

            Being angry is normal, and even a healthy stage to go through. You have every right to be angry. Just be mindful that as we live in closer quarters now that you don’t take your anger out on those around you. They don’t deserve it. Maybe the person who ate a bat in China deserves it, but I’m not sure that person is still alive, so… Be angry, but not at others.

Stage 4 Depression

            My cousin woke up angry yesterday. When nighttime rolled around, she said she was going to do homework and several minutes later I found her under her blankets curled up in a ball. When I told her she was supposed to be doing her homework, she said, “Leave me alone.” Then later went to her mom’s, who I’m sure is far more comforting than I could’ve been.

            Today, we both made the effort to wake up earlier than we have been, because our sleeping schedules have been so messed up. Yet as I write this from my balcony, she has been sleeping on the couch for about an hour.

            According to Axelrod, there are two types of depression associated with grief. The first is sadness and regret, however, “The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.” Here, she is talking about the death of a loved one, but again, I think it can be applied to any type of loss.

            Depression is tricky, because it’s also one of those things that not everyone experiences the same. WebMD lays out the symptoms as, “Sad, empty, or anxious; Helpless, worthless, or guilty; Hopeless; Irritable; Less interest in activities; Less energetic; Trouble concentrating; Changes in the way you sleep; Changes in appetite; Aches and pains.”

            Whatever depressive symptoms you might be experiencing, also know that this too is normal. It’s part of the process. Just as there are a list of reasons to be angry, that same list applies to being sad and grieving. Just as my cousin has lost the rest of her senior year and the life she had, many others have also lost something.

            You may have lost your privacy (along with your sanity). You lost a job. You lost school (or the normal way of school). You lost time with friends. You lost community. And the list goes on.

            These are all sad things to lose, and it’s completely okay and even important to grieve over them. Be depressed. But hopefully not for too long.

Stage 5 Acceptance

            Oh look. My cousin got up, put on some decent clothes, and even put on deodorant.

            I think Grief.COM has a great explanation of this stage: “We [may] never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.”

            Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy, but it means you acknowledge that life is different, that you have experienced loss, and now it’s time to readjust and keep moving forward.

            Everyone grieves differently and at their own pace, so it might be quite a while before getting to this stage. It’s also important to note that you can go through the stages all over again. This Saturday we’re supposed to get the remainder of my cousin’s belongings and bring them here. I expect that she will be in denial, bargain, and be sad all over again. I expect that she will be processing her grief for the weeks to come.

            What’s important to know is that it is important to process your loss. Axelrod says, “The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.”

            Throughout my cousin’s time here, I’ve been talking with her and helping her process. I haven’t stopped her from feeling anything she needs to be feeling. If she needs to be sad, angry, or bargain, I let her do it. I can’t push the stages on her and I can’t take them away from her. It’s her own process, and all I can do is be supportive.

            I’ve talked a lot about my cousin’s grief, so I want to leave on one last thought. If anyone’s wondering how I’m coping with all this, I can honestly say I was already far better equipped to handle a quarantine than most. I’m an introvert. I’m a writer, and do 90% of my writing at home. I’ve always been too self-conscious to go to a gym, so I’ve always done home workouts, and now have been working out nearly every day. I’m going to be so fit when we get to go out again.

            Even my best friend pointed out that I have everything I need to entertain or keep myself busy within my home. I recently lent her books and coloring book because she too was going crazy from boredom.

            I’ve personally been in heaven with all this free time to write, read, and workout. I also absolutely love being alone, as long as I can talk to people here and there.

            I’m equipped to handle long periods of isolation, but I know many are not. There are more extroverts than introverts in our country after all. So, I’ve been trying to do my part to help those around me. I made my cousin take walks with me, and even got her to workout with me yesterday. When babysitting my little sister, I suggested we do a duet because she plays violin and I used to play piano. I baked cookies the other day and did deliveries (keeping my social distance).

            The effects of quarantine and isolation have been hitting everyone differently, so if you are able to help out, please do. Reach out by making a phone call or video chat, not just text. Send humorous memes and gifs. Find a hobby. Get off your butt, and try to get someone else to get off their butt too.

            What I find most beautiful about what’s happening to our world is that whenever a crisis hits, there are people who rise up to help. This crisis has had a global impact, and now more than ever, I’ve seen how an entire planet can come together and be united. We are united in our isolation and hardships. Grieve if you need to, and help others however you can.
"In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones.... we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time." - The Five Stages of Grief, Grief.COM

The 5 Stages of Grief and Loss
Five Stages of Grief
Causes and Symptoms of Depression

1 comment:

  1. This was honestly so helpful. Thank you.