Recently, as I was thinking about the number of people who have lost family members and other loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic, I was reminded of an important set of ideas about grief that I first learned some 50 years ago and promptly forgot.
In the 1960s, a psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set out to change the way the world looks at people who are terminally ill. She pioneered hospice care and became the driving force behind the movement to “treat the dying with dignity.” Her extensive work with the dying led to the internationally best-selling book entitled “On Death and Dying.”
In 1969, she proposed the now famous Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Based on her research, she argued that individuals experience these stages when faced with their imminent death, and it has since been seen as also applying to the survivors of a loved one’s death. Let’s examine Kubler-Ross’s theory as applied to grieving the loss of a loved one.
Grieving often starts with denial. I recall vividly the precise evening when I received a telephone call telling me that my younger brother had died suddenly. He was only 61 years old at the time, and at first I could not believe that he was gone. The cause of his death was a heart attack, and I was not aware that he had any heart issues. So, my first thought was that there must be some mistake; surely Joe had many more years of life ahead. I was in denial.
The second stage is anger. In the case of losing a loved one to Covid-19, we want to know why this had to happen. Surely it’s not fair for a family member to suddenly die from a disease we didn’t know existed a short time ago. Why my relative? She certainly had not done anything wrong and had not neglected her health. It seems like a purely random choice and it makes me mad. Why was my family being picked on?
Bargaining is the third stage. That occurs when you begin thinking of all the ways the death of your loved one could have been prevented. If I had known that Joe had some heart problems, I would have tried to convince him to see a doctor and figure out a regimen of treatment to prevent his early death. I couldn’t undo what had already happened, but maybe there was something I could have done in advance if only I had been more concerned about his health. Clearly I was thinking in terms of bargaining.
Then comes depression, which is the worst stage by far. To resist becoming depressed I helped write Joe’s obituary and I also put a lot of thought into preparing a eulogy to read at his funeral. I comforted his widow and daughter and tried to help my parents deal with this unexpected loss.
But after the funeral was over and I had returned home, my sense of sorrow and guilt was a heavy burden. I just kept thinking that my younger brother was gone from our lives forever, and I was powerless to change it.
The final stage, and the one that is usually the hardest and slowest to reach is acceptance. It helps to find someone you can talk to about your feelings, and a close family member is often the best choice. My wife was my comforter. It doesn’t mean you are OK with what happened. In the case of Covid-19, it may help to realize how many others have lost friends and family to this pandemic and to accept your responsibility to get vaccinated, both for your own sake and the public good.