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We are grieving, we should treat each other as such

By The Reverend Matthew Warren

Special to Plumas News

Editor’s note: We highly encourage you to read this thoughtful piece. It helps to put in perspective that we are dealing with the same profound changes, and perhaps will help us all be more tolerant and patient with each other.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of elementary school students about my occupation as an Episcopal Priest. Serving as a priest is a great honor, but I think everyone in the room was surprised when I said that a large part of my job is being with people at their worst.

As a priest, there are moments of joy: weddings, welcoming a newborn into a family, or presiding over an unintentionally comical Christmas pageant. But far more often, I am called to sit with parishioners in the wake of a devastating trauma. Whether it is losing a job, getting a divorce, hearing about a cancer diagnosis, or even after the death of a loved one, a lot of my ministry is being present in the worst moments of people’s lives.

And as varied as all these traumas are, they elicit a similar pattern. We often hear about these stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) following the death of a loved one. But we experience grief in more contexts than simply death. We mourn a relationship after a breakup or divorce. We mourn our health after a life-changing diagnosis like diabetes or cancer. We mourn the loss of friends and community after a move—we mourn any time we feel we have lost something dear to us.

And let me be absolutely clear, we have all lost something dear to us: our lives as we knew them pre-COVID-19.

When the shelter in place order was made in March, we were getting ready for all those rites of Spring: Little League, proms, graduations, maybe even a trip out of town. Maybe we were just looking forward to going to the movies. We have missed birthday parties, Easter egg hunts, field trips, and, perhaps most importantly, we have missed one another’s company.

This is a tremendous loss, and we need to treat it as one.

Even something as trivial as going to the store takes extra coordination. Whether it’s donning a mask or asking a part of our quarin-team to watch our kids while we shop, nothing is as it used to be. It all represents a loss — something we miss, something we want to return to, but can’t.

We are grieving.

And because we all find ourselves grieving, we need to know not just what that looks like, but how we can help our family, friends, neighbors, even how we can help take care of ourselves through this process.

The five stages of grief was a pattern of dealing with loss first recognized in 1969 by a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Denial is usually the first stage in dealing with trauma or loss. Grief can be so overwhelming that our primary coping mechanism is to simply deny the loss or change is happening. The simple phrase “I can’t believe this is happening” is a key indicator that we are so shocked by what is going on around us, we literally can’t process all the change at once. It is a sign that we are in a grief process. Of course, the larger the impact, the greater our denial. When we hear people say “this is a disease which is made up,” what we are hearing is an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one.

Anger often follows denial. When we are in denial, we stifle our emotional response; in the anger phase, our emotions are redirected. Anger masks not just the pain we are feeling, but the sum total of all of our emotions. Anger may manifest itself in feelings of bitterness or resentment. We’re angry about the cancellation of a youth league or another annual event. We’re frustrated by the new realities of wearing masks or physical distancing. These outbursts are a sign that we are coming to terms with our loss. As the anger subsides, we are able to more rationally explore our emotions and what is happening around us.

Bargaining is an attempt to regain control of what we have lost due to a trauma. When we feel vulnerable or helpless, bargaining is a coping mechanism to help us feel like we can control an outcome, any outcome. We may hear a lot of “what if” or “if only” statements. We try to negotiate with our civic leaders to restore our former, pre-COVID-19 lives. Again, the bargains we are seeking are not always rational — they are merely an attempt to create a sense of control. It allows us to postpone the feelings of sadness, confusion, or hurt because we hope that by successfully bargaining, we can avoid this situation all together. If the festival or fair is on-track, if the Plumas to Pacific field trip can happen, or our favorite golf tournament isn’t cancelled, then we don’t have to deal with the realities of a global pandemic.

Depression is the murkiest stage of grief to define. Unlike more active stages like Anger or Bargaining, Depression is much quieter. When dealing with death, isolation is often a marker of the Depression stage. With the shelter in place and physical distancing guidelines, it is difficult to discern the difference between withdrawing to cope with our sense of loss and simply being alone. We have less energy, we may feel cathartic or foggy, confused about once simple tasks. If you are feeling stuck in this stage, I encourage you to find and speak to a therapist, mental health expert, or a religious leader about your feelings. They can help you work through these feelings. Because while we might expect a world-wide pandemic to leave us depressed, this is actually not the final stage of grief.

Acceptance is.

Acceptance isn’t the opposite of depression—you may not feel uplifted or happy about what is going on. Acceptance is merely a recognition of how you have incorporated this loss into your everyday life. We may still miss the life we knew before COVID-19, but we are also able to find silver linings — family dinners uninterrupted by a hectic activity schedule, new habits like reading or gardening. Acceptance is simply living with the new reality.

The last observation I would offer is that as we are grieving, we often have less patience than we normally do. We are tired. Our body and mind are spending tremendous amounts of energy, known and unknown, on working out these problems.

We also have much less patience for people who are in a different stage of grief than we are. I hear these differences all the time. “Why should someone be angry or upset when there’s nothing to be angry about? (Denial vs. Anger) “Plumas County residents should be able to host (fill in the blank) event because our numbers are low — what are they thinking?” (Bargaining vs. Acceptance) “My friends on Facebook are posting things which really upset me, I guess I’m not as much a member of my community as I thought.” (Depression/Acceptance vs. Anger/Denial).

I fear that over the past three months, we have failed to recognize how much grief we are experiencing. As such, it has soured our former sense of community and left us less able to work constructively through this crisis. My hope in writing this is that we can all better recognize our own grief and be more patient and understanding with one another during this pandemic. We can’t treat grief if we can’t first recognize it.

If you recognize these feelings and need help, again, I hope you will seek out help from mental health experts.

We are all in this together. And those of us trained in mental health and pastoral care are here for you.

The Reverend Matthew Warren is an Episcopal Priest who serves congregations in Quincy and Lake Almanor.

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