Issue #13: Belonging and Grief

Of the many psychology theories that crossed over to pop culture, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief outlined in On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss stands out in our present collective crisis:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Depression

  4. Bargaining

  5. Acceptance

While each stage is not as neat, time-bound, and linear as the term stage suggests, this framework provides a language and logic that helps all of us understand the complexity and weight of grief. Much like belonging, grief is a universal state of being that all of us experience but in different ways.

During my weekly call home this weekend, my mother and I both shared a sigh of relief in these terrible times. We both agreed that my grandmother/her mother would have been overwhelmed with anxiety if she were alive to live to this pandemic. We were bizarrely thankful for her passing in 2017 in that it saved her from this brand of suffering.

Of course, I would not have had this level of acceptance if you had seen me that July 4th holiday in 2017 after receiving the news. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have the opportunity to say a final goodbye because she was in Texas and I was in San Francisco. I was extremely depressed about the loss of someone who had been a lifelong source of wisdom, care and support. And unlike my other family members, I was left grieving alone because I didn’t live nearby.

And yet, I can’t imagine the immense sorrow of losing friends and loved ones to coronavirus without being able to be physically present. That said, this crisis is changing the way that we grieve in favor of new rituals, communities, and identities that reshape the temporality and spatiality of the belonging we associate with more traditional notions of grief. As grief can become more anticipatory and more collective, we could expect to greater amplification of each stage of grief.

Kubler-Ross’s co-author David Kessler recently released book entitled Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief as a follow up to On Grief and Grieving. In grappling with grief in his personal life and in his professional work supporting people working through medical trauma, he saw that meaning making was a necessary sixth stage to include in the grieving process.

I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.

And it’s in that meaning making where we can explore and foster new modes of belonging. Because many of us have and will suffer losses that hit us personally: deaths of loved ones, falling sick and recovering, job and income loss, mental illness and struggles. We are also confronting the loss of our sense of normalcy: gathering with family and friends, congregating in physical spaces, feelings of safety and security. And we are also recognizing that going back to normal would continue to hurt the very people who we are relying on to survive this trauma. But we will all grapple with loss and the grief of those losses differently.

Maybe there’s a vocal minority demanding to “re-open” the states, clearly stuck in the stage of denial and using the language of data and rationality to persuade people to adopt their position. But the rest of us are bouncing around all of the stages of grief with every new headline and every different milestone.

A counselor, Claire Bidwell Smith, quoted in a recent article in The Atlantic characterized our medium-term response to grief:

Grief may be delayed, she said, but a shared catharsis may lie ahead. “I think there will be a massive collective mourning when we’ve emerged from this, for us as a culture,” Smith said. “While what’s happening is heartbreaking, and we haven’t been able to ritualize or memorialize. We will come back to this.”

Right now, volunteer networks like the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project have sprung into action to address the immediacy of collective mourning. With the majority of the country legally obligated to practice social distancing, people can no longer host and attend funerals and other rites of passage to grieve the dead together. These ad hoc initiatives provide outlets for people to come together to make meaning by providing support for others when they need it most, allowing families to be more present for each other.

In some ways, designing remote rituals around death allow more people to be included as they are not limited by distance. Digital funeral attendees have more opportunity to share stories and photos that create a more holistic picture of the deceased and allow the legacy to be reaffirmed and sustained. But physical contact is so integral to mourning: the hugs, handshakes and affirming pats on the back that all help soothe the grieving.

For those of us seeking comfort from the anticipatory grief, there’s always comfort food and eating, substance abuse involving alcohol, cannabis and other drugs, and other coping mechanisms that aim to recreate the positive feelings of physical touch. Impromptu social media movements spring up around amateur sourdough bread bakers or creating historic works of art with household items. This could be an area for augmented reality to bridge the gap that we cannot satisfy with Zoom and FaceTime.

These new rituals help with more interpersonal levels of grief. But as we look on the horizon, we can see the looming experience and continued threat of collective grief. When national tragedies such as the September 11 attacks have happened, we have a national mourning response with ceremony and annual commemoration. And even when coronavirus has passed, we still have slow moving crises such as climate disruption on the horizon.

Writer Sarah Kendzior calls for a unified demonstration of national mourning to recognize the grief that we all feels as Americans suffering through this collective loss and looking for a place for reassurance and reconnection with each other.

And the depravation of this large-scale recognition of grief takes a toll on our sense of belonging as we feel isolated in suffering through this trauma. As traditional institutions fail to be the steward of comforting a grieving nation, people like 17-year-old Lincoln Denbenham launch the social media hashtag #ObamaCommencement2020 calling for former President Barack Obama to step into the role and provide comfort and hope to the nation’s high school and college seniors missing out on graduations. Of course, all of us could use more than a little comfort and hope these days.