The Republic of Grief
The Berkshire Eagle, April 23,2020
My wife and I just lost an old friend to the coronavirus. She sounded fine from the hospital. A few days later she was gone, leaving a big hole in our lives.
You may have one of those holes too. Or soon will. This epidemic has so far caused 200,000 deaths, nearly a third of them Americans. That's more than we lost to combat in World War I, as well as the Vietnam, Korean and Revolutionary wars.
In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 40% of respondents said they knew someone who had contracted the virus. A Morning Connect survey found that nearly one American in ten had a friend or family member who died of it. Both polls were conducted three weeks ago. The numbers are no doubt higher now.
There will be a memorial service for our friend when things get safer. Until then, we'll just have to grieve together, online—where we do pretty much everything these days.
It was online that I found a small measure of solace. Wouldn't you know, there's a website called grief.com. It is run by followers of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who came up with the now famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance.
I always thought those sounded a little glib, imprecise. Not anymore. I've realized that these stages rather neatly describe the emotions that have swept us all in these anxious times. We've become a republic of grief—united in mourning, not just for vanished loved ones, but also for lost incomes, disrupted lives, curtailed freedoms and a shattered sense of security.
As we struggle to cope, we seem to be following the Kübler-Ross script:
Denial. Hey, this virus thing is no big deal, China is far away, a vaccine will be ready soon, and we've got the best healthcare system in the world.
Anger. We're deeply annoyed that we can't go to work, to school, to get a haircut. The parks are closed. The Olympics are iffy. Major League Baseball is on a ventilator.
Bargaining. OK, if we agree to stay home a couple weeks, wash our hands for two "Happy Birthdays" and combine our trips to the supermarket, things will be fine, right?
Sadness. This is getting serious. Businesses are disappearing, and the bodies are piling up. Unemployment is soaring, the GDP is sinking. We've lost the world we knew. Life will never be the same.
Acceptance. Maybe it's time we can start thinking about what comes next—what mix of testing, tracing, masking and social distancing will let us reopen the economy, rebuild our lives.
Kübler-Ross died in 2004, but not before designating grief expert David Kessler as her successor in their grim but necessary mission. Helpfully, Kessler has added a sixth stage to the list:
Meaning. We can take inspiration from those we've lost, he says, build memorials to them in our hearts and our communities. We can move forward in ways that will honor our loved ones.
So let me make a stab at honoring the life of Ellen O'Keefe, who died April 19 in Boston. She leaves a legacy of professional achievement, personal fulfillment, culinary excellence, exceptional kids and adorable grandkids.
Also irresistible optimism, infectious kindness and more friends than anyone I ever knew. It is an honor and an inspiration to have been among them.