A sixth stage of grief

‘This is all temporary, even though my chattering mind pokes me with notions that it could be permanent’

MARLBORO — On March 19, Experienced Goods closed indefinitely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few of us worked on that Thursday with the lights off and the doors locked, organizing and cleaning, tying up loose ends, buttoning things up in a way that will make our eventual reopening smoother.

We sat and ate lunch together, chatting, trying to make light of the situation, none of us really sure what this quarantine thing would look and feel like.

We walked one another through the process of applying for unemployment online, cheering when each of us completed the application successfully.

When we left in the late afternoon and the door clicked shut behind us, it felt like the start to any other long weekend or vacation.

And then the weirdness set in.

* * *

I don't have to describe to any of you what the grocery stores are like - no toilet paper, no napkins, no panko bread crumbs (really?) - or how strange it is to drive down Main Street in Brattleboro with virtually no traffic, or to be permitted to use only the drive-through at the bank.

The really disorienting thing is to be at home all day, every day, knowing that we are being strongly encouraged by our state and federal governments to stay there unless we absolutely need to go out for groceries, pharmacy needs, or banking.

There is this sense of essential personal freedoms being curtailed: the freedom to go where we want, when we want; the freedom to see, speak to, and interact with people in our lives as we always have.

I find myself gravitating to Facebook a lot more, something I normally would do only occasionally, almost never posting anything.

Who would have thought that Facebook would be a saving grace? Now it feels like an electronic hand reaching across miles and through walls, a way to stay connected. I see something funny or thought-provoking, I share it. I bake something delicious or sew a new dress, I take a photo and post it. People react, laugh, send little messages.

As a card-carrying introvert, I never really mind time to myself; I actually relish it, and I am not at a loss for projects and activities to keep me engaged and busy.

But there is something about being mandated to stay home that sparks a little panic.

I miss my co-workers, I miss the energetic, never-a-dull-moment bustle of Experienced Goods, I miss being engaged with my community.

So I text, talk on the phone, wait for the “ding” that indicates someone has posted something on Facebook.

I have been taking naps, something I almost never did before. I drift restlessly from cleaning the kitchen to practicing music to sewing to riding my spinning bike, to cleaning something else, and back to check in on Facebook.

Time feels distorted. I feel unmoored, aimless, isolated. A little depressed.

* * *

I recently came across an interview (“That Discomfort You Are Feeling Is Grief,” Harvard Business Review) which seemed to speak to exactly what I am feeling. Why, yes - yes, it is.

Scott Berinato presents segments of an interview he conducted with David Kessler, one of the world's foremost experts on grief, who also co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross the iconic book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Kessler has also written a new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

In short, Kessler says that we are all navigating several different losses: Loss of the world as we knew it, a sense of not knowing what the future holds (anticipatory grief), which is the mind going into overdrive, racing and chattering and imagining the worst-case scenarios. And the grief is global, all around us, not just within ourselves, which tends to amplify it.

He describes how many of us might go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance) as we acclimate to this new reality but explains that the five stages do not necessarily occur in order.

And that sixth stage? Finding meaning. Coming back to the moment we are in, much as one does while meditating. Finding a way to balance accelerating thoughts and fears with the thing right in front of me, like my cat sleeping in my lap, walking to the post office and breathing in the cold but verdant early-spring air, kneading bread dough for a yeasty loaf.

Like everything, it is a process. Every day is different, and there is something oddly comforting knowing that there will be day after day after day to explore the process further.

Today, right now, I am incredibly lucky and blessed in so many ways.

* * *

This is all temporary, even though my chattering mind pokes me with notions that it could be permanent. There will be a decline in virus infections; there will eventually be a vaccine.

Experienced Goods and most of the other businesses in our area and state and country will reopen and start to rebuild from this crisis. Schools will be back in session; farmers' markets will resume; musicians will have gigs again.

We will all be changed - hopefully, for the better. Maybe we will be kinder; maybe, more patient.

I have been thinking about my German mother who went through the aftermath of World War I as a child and the horrors of World War II as a young woman, the stories she told of deprivations and the limits on personal freedom she experienced, and how much appreciation it gave her for small, ordinary things in her life, like an abundance of good food or a safe, comfortable house.

So I texted my co-workers to check in, think about Experienced Goods dark and quiet and waiting just as we left it, ready for us to return, turn on the lights, and unlock the doors.

Soon, we will all be standing closer than 6 feet apart again, blinking and smiling and sharing isolation stories - a little stronger, a little wiser, resilient and hopeful.

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