Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: COVID-19 and grief

If you had to describe this emotional rollercoaster in just one word, what would it be? That one word is ‘grief’, so says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll in her weekly column
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: COVID-19 and grief

"Because when we pare it all back, we are essentially grieving the loss of three things from our lives; connection, freedom and security."

AT the beginning of this pandemic, I wrote about tangible ways to deal with the situation we found ourselves in; creating a routine, controlling the controllable, and other tips to get through the weeks ahead.

At the time, none of us knew how long this would all last before we could safely emerge from our homes and return to normal. As the weeks and months have passed, and the details of the roadmap were laid out before us, it has become clear that actually, normal is not returning for a very long time.

In order to prevent our health services from becoming overwhelmed, supress the virus, and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, the world we knew can no longer be. Instead, we are facing into a ‘new normal’ of social distancing, limited interaction and a feeling of vulnerability as individuals and as a nation.

In more recent times, I wrote about how to deal with the difficult emotions and negative thought patterns that so many of us are experiencing right now. What has particularly interested me however, is the root of these emotions. We know that they’re to be expected as a result of such enormous change, but if you had to describe this emotional rollercoaster in just one word, what would it be? That one word is “grief.”

Elizabeth Kubler Ross described the stages of grief that one experiences upon discovering that they have a terminal illness, and these stages have subsequently been combined into the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, applicable not only to terminal illness, but to how we navigate change and transition in all aspects of our lives over time. And this Change Curve makes complete sense in relation to the situation we now find ourselves in.

Because when we pare it all back, we are essentially grieving the loss of three things from our lives; connection, freedom and security. We are grieving the connection that no Zoom call or FaceTime can ever fully replace; connection that comes with hugging family and friends, gathering together to celebrate a wedding, baby shower or birthday, or congregating to mourn the passing of a loved one.

We are grieving the freedom that for now must be curtailed by a travel limit, and in several months time will continue to be impacted by the need to socially distance.

We are grieving the security that we once enjoyed, financial, emotional or otherwise. So many have watched their livelihoods disintegrate before their eyes, and are coming to terms with the reality of that. What we once knew for sure is no longer a certainty.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve breaks this grief into several stages, which are explained below.

Stage 1: Shock – think back to that Thursday afternoon when schools closed, or that fateful Friday night when the full restrictions were implemented. Shock was the initial feeling experienced by most.

Stage 2: Denial – do you find yourself questioning that all of this this is even possible, or wondering if it’s all just a bad dream? I still experience this stage frequently, where I plan a holiday in my head, or look forward to an event that, in the cold light of reality, will not be able to go ahead.

Stage 3: Frustration – this encompasses our tendency to lash out and react to the injustice of all of this, the inconvenience and harshness of it. Anger features here too, which we are liable to take out on those around us when things get too much to bear.

Stage 4: Depression – this stage is where the enormity of our new reality it hits us like a train, with little or no light at the end of the tunnel. This is a tough stage to navigate, with lots of heavy emotions to work through.

Stage 5: Experiment - this stage marks a shift, which involves the beginning of engagement with the new situation and the first steps towards trying to adapt to it.

Stage 6: Decision - during this stage we begin to really take the change on board, learn how to function within our new situation, and begin to feel more positive about it.

Stage 7: Integration – this is the stage we reach when the “new normal” has been fully embedded, and we have embraced it to the best of our ability.

It is extremely helpful to be able to identify day-to-day where you currently reside on that path or Change Curve. It helps to be able to say “ah, that’s why I’m feeling this way. It’s part of the process. It’s normal.”

It’s also vital to note that while the stages are listed in a particular order, it is not a straightforward linear journey through them, unfortunately.

It‘s very common to move backwards along the path, sometimes by several steps, or to even find yourself to be experiencing more than one stage simultaneously!

Bear in mind too that while we are all weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.

Everybody has their own unique challenges to navigate during this, which means that everybody will travel through this Change Curve at a different pace, in different ways. Don’t compare your progress to others. The person that seems to be coping excellently right now may find themselves two stages back tomorrow. Such is the nature of grief.

If you had to describe this emotional rollercoaster in just one word, what would it be? That one word is ‘grief’.


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a Lecturer of Clinical Pharmacy in UCC, while continuing to work in the community pharmacy setting.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

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