Elizabeth Kubler-Ross studied grief and dying. Her observations as a psychiatrist provided the basis for the idea that most human beings pass through “stages” that are identifiable: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Human beings are relatively unpredictable creatures, but her general model holds. Chaplains, therapists, doctors, nurses, family members have witnessed for themselves the loops, off-ramps and by-passes of the so-called “grieving process.” We’ve seen denial last for months, skipping back and forth with bargaining; anger can turn inward to become depression only to become anger again. Some folks never seem to reach acceptance. But what of most of us who do finally accept loss?
As a chaplain intern at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas more than three decades ago, I saw anger among the dying and those anticipating grief, even bargaining, a lot of denial. And, of course, when death occurred there was a great deal of shock and disbelief, even among those people who thought they were prepared for the death of a loved one. Somehow, it is not until that yawning gap opens up, that absence becomes present, that we get the real dose of grief. Most of the families I informed of a death, seemed suddenly to come unmoored, some drifting in a deluge of emotions so powerful they might feel numb. They needed the gentle suggestions and directions, “Would you like to sit down?” “Here, have a cup of water.”
I never got to see anything resembling the “acceptance” stage of grief until I became a pastor. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe I expected that the grieving would eventually wake up to a day on which the sun shone more brightly. I’m not sure. If I had reflected on my own experiences of grief, when my beloved grandfather died, when my younger brother died, I would have seasoned my expectations with a realization that grief is like a wound. It may heal, but it leaves a scar. And acceptance simply means emotionally coming to terms with that scar.
We are all witnessing a lot of grief these days. Grief, as we all know, accompanies any kind of loss, not only physical death. Job loss, in addition to financial anxiety and fear, can produce as much grief as the death of a loved one. Illnesses can be attended with losses too, even if one survives. And the tsunami of deaths has not abated, and the grief just keeps coming.
We’ve seen a lot of denial related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of it is politically motivated. Some is cravenly self-interested. But some of the denial is that natural reaction that rises up in the human heart when confronted by something so terrible we just can’t believe it is true.
We’ve surely witnessed a lot of anger. Some of it is politically motivated, as with denial. But much of it is directly related to social, financial and personal issues arising from the pandemic. And, because a disease is ultimately responsible, and we all feel pretty helpless, that anger needs a more tangible object to blame than an invisible virus, which is, as one pathologist says, “just bad news wrapped in a protein.”
At some point, we’ll get to acceptance. Eventually. Probably. But, as we’ve discovered in our own journeys of grief, acceptance will not mean a return to the way things were. The economically-most-vulnerable in our society have been ravaged by the illness, and it will take a lot of help for them to get even close to the level of financial insecurity they knew before the pandemic. The physically-most-vulnerable will have little reason to breathe easier when this present crisis passes. Who knows when the next one will come along?
This pandemic has wounded us, and when the wound heals (among those of us fortunate enough to survive), a scar will replace the wound.
I am reminded that the Psalms of Lament, those passages of scripture that pack such a punch of honesty, begin with weeping and sorrow, questioning of God, blaming, anger, bargaining, depression, and only sometimes culminate in acceptance. And even the acceptance, like the hard won wisdom of which Aeschylus speaks, “drip, drip, dripping into the soul as pure pain even when we dream,” frequently is an acceptance in a minor key, mellowed perhaps, more sober certainly, sometimes beautiful, but always fragile. This is life, adagio.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church