THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Ah, summer! The span of time between Memorial Day to Labor Day punctuated by graduations and the 4th of July. The tennis courts and the swimming pool. Vacations away and picnics and BBQs at home. From summer camp to the start of school there is time to finally take a breath, stretch those wintered limbs and relax. Or at least that’s what the idyllic summer looked like – until 2020.
This year each of those holidays seemed to create a gruesome jack-in-the-box somewhere in the country. People would pop out for a weekend and two weeks later be told to get back inside due to spikes in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Hot spots, like mercury in the thermometer, began to rise, first in specific places and then to connect all the spaces between. In the course of five relentless months COVID has burned away the façade of the American dream from the largest city to the most remote rural community and exposed the inequity and injustice found in every institution from the police and health care, to the media and education.
Fires burn across the western landscape. Hurricanes, rain and wind tear a path in the east. In between, and far more tragic, are the places where people declare their freedom from masks and their immunity to science; where they protest their humanity and yet burn the innocent along with the guilty. They all lash out and resist and rail against the world and wail at the absence of leadership but offer no solutions of their own. So caught in the rights of the individual and the culture of the one, there is no room for a cohesive sense of community. Righteous indignation is the country’s only common thread and it never produces a common cause.
Is it any wonder that the mental health of the country is a growing concern? Uncertainty is a well-known stressor and long-term uncertainty has a proven role in the significant decline of physical as well as mental health. The human body – especially the human body of modernity – is not well equipped for constant fear. The natural ‘fight or flight’ reaction is not a helpful choice in the context of zoom meetings or take-out dining (though this stark choice may explain some of the more suddenly violent reactions in so many different places). Uncertainty literally kills.
However, at least part of that deadly impact takes place long before the physical outcome through a sense that uncertainty has killed ‘normalcy’ and it is our recognition of that fact that has produced a national sense of collective grief. Perhaps perversely, understanding and using that sense of group grief may create a way forward.
David Kessler, co-author with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross of the now famous text: On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss has, with the permission of Kubler-Ross’s family, added to that seminal work by suggesting that there is a sixth stage of grief which he calls ‘finding meaning’. He has argued that COVID includes a number of types of grief that in and of themselves are not unusual, but what is unusual is that we can all identify the same moment when our reality changed. We all recognize the same cause and share the grief over the loss of loved ones, economic loss, the loss of connection and, particularly important in this moment, the grief we feel in anticipation of loss. Kessler believes this last kind of grief is so deeply powerful because the uncertainty around the virus (and the conflicting information put out by some for their own political ends) has fundamentally undermined our collective sense of safety. This kind of uncertainty, he suggests, is usually limited to individuals or small groups, but the pandemic has created a circumstance in which we are literally ‘all in this together’ and it is this collectivity that has us bewildered.
Of course, this kind of grief has not ruled out the others. Everyone has seen evidence of people in denial (this won’t happen to me/my family/our country) or who can’t overcome their anger (you can’t make me: stay home/wear a mask/stop going to parties). More subtle are the stages of bargaining (I will behave for 2 weeks but then I can do what I want) while most obvious the sadness (I have lost someone/ this nightmare just won’t end). However, many have also come to the point of acceptance (let’s work out how we go forward from here). Yet, as Kubler-Ross and Kessler found so long ago, these stages are not linear. People may go through the stages in a different order or even multiple times and, given the fact we are going through this phenomenon as a country, everyone will be at different stages at different points in time. Thus, while presenting an obvious mental health challenge, the difficulties in terms of policy formation, let alone implementation, become severe.
To return for a moment to the sixth stage or finding meaning – what does Kessler’s idea suggest for the situation in which we all find ourselves? First, he poses the idea that the first step is to acknowledge this sense of grief for what is it. The other stages of loss can so often mask the grief we may feel (or see in others) and it manifests as anger or denial. Alternatively, when we find ourselves feeling sad, the instinct is to rush to the thought that we can’t complain because ‘so many are having a much harder time’ or we just ‘shouldn’t feel’ a certain way. Kessler suggests that this may be a mistake because naming a feeling can release it and, put simply, emotion needs motion to move on. Asking where the anger or sadness or refusal to accept or the sense of a deal with the devil is actually coming from may reveal the grief that can underpin those reactions. This may, in turn, start a process that brings some form of acceptance and, Kessler hopes, the sense of meaning that will enable people to frame and manage their grief.
Ah, Summer! The warmth that comes not only from the sun but from evenings spent with friends, laughing at twilight, perhaps not entirely sure of tomorrow but safe in the protection of that moment with those people in that place and space. Normalcy is not dead, only temporarily lost – but it will not be regained if we do not find a way to help ourselves and those around us to work towards acceptance because that is where we regain our control. That is where we see the world for what it is and find the leadership to rebuild a world that is better for having coming through the fire and wind of COVID.