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The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging our language about emotional distress. Some see a co-occuring epidemic of “mental illness” in a tidal wave of anxiety and depression crashing over our world. Others suggest we are experiencing something more profound … more human … and more ordinary,

Grief washes through our lives in waves that are as different as a tsunami surge and a wind-lapped puddle. The waves of grief ultimately land on the shore that defines our life’s meaning. Image by Martin Winkler from Pixabay

In the first days of self-isolation, a lot of experts alerted us to the rising tide of “mental illness” we were seeing. Anxiety was elevated. Depression was more common. Our children were experiencing the kind of trauma that would “rewire” their bodies and brains for life. All of this foreshadowed a national mental health crisis.

A little more than a week ago, a different set of names was proposed in a Harvard Business Review article. Perhaps what we’re observing is “grief.”

Grief comes in more than one form and manifold shapes. We grieve what we have in fact lost — a parent who died, a marriage that ended, the freedom to come and go when we please. We grieve what we anticipate losing — a financially secure future, a successful career of our choice. And our grief washes through our lives in waves that are as different as a tsunami surge and a wind-lapped puddle.

Five Stages of Grief, Plus One

Grief tosses us into unpredictable emotional settings, and there’s no telling who will be thrown where at any given moment. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described five different emotional environments we find ourselves in during grief. She called them “stages” of grief, at the same time noting that they don’t necessarily follow in order.

Most important, she reminded us that if five people are dealing with the same grief-inducing situation at the same time, they aren’t necessarily going to land in the same “stage” at the same time.

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Sadness
  • Acceptance

Kubler-Ross co-author David Kessler adds a sixth stage:

  • Meaning

For Kessler, simply accepting a personal loss was not enough. In the long run, he needed to find some meaning to establish the value of the experience.

Finding Meaning in Tough Times Like COVID

I think Kessler’s perspective echoes what we of faith know. It’s not enough to accept that “It is what it is” when faced with a challenge like COVID 19. It’s not enough to take the actions that the new situation allows. It’s essential to let God show us as much as we can see from this world of what the larger purposes might be.

I’ve spent most of the last two weeks bouncing among Denial, Anger, Sadness and Meaning:

  • Denial: “I’ll just keep on with my ordinary routine. I’ll set up a work table at home for my job and nothing will change.”
  • Anger: “What do you mean, my hours will be cut? I’m accomplishing more for the organization now than ever!”
  • Sadness: I don’t have words for this one, but I’m guessing it’s what underlies the hours when I can’t see a way forward — when there seems nothing useful to do next and I can’t think of anyone to call.
  • Meaning: “Being away from the office with reduced hours gives me space to focus on some things that matter to me.” I can work on a large writing project that I started a few weeks ago. Prepare for an online conference a friend is organizing. Complete a benzo taper without anyone seeing side effects, should they emerge.

“Meaning” is starting to kick in for some other folk, too. “Meaning” is what happens when people live their values. Even in circumstances that might push them toward a different behavior.

‘Meaning’ Expressed in Simple Acts

I saw “meaning” play out in a very simple way today, when I made an early morning pilgrimage to the supermarket in hope of scoring a few rolls of toilet paper. As I approached the line that stretched far across the shopping center, the face-masked and bearded guy at its end waved his hand at me.

“You go ahead,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He nodded … and then, as I took my place ahead of him, waved another shopper, and another, and another, into the line.

I’m going to guess that letting others go ahead was a way this man established “meaning” in his morning. Maybe it was a way to name himself as one of the last who shall be first in the Kingdom. Maybe it meant naming himself as a gentleman that his late mother would approve. Maybe it just meant naming himself a fellow human in a difficult situation, part of the community that lives with the COVID pandemic threat. Whatever his meaning, the gesture that went beyond “acceptance” of the situation and added his own value to the moment.

The supermarket staff likewise chooses meaning beyond acceptance every time I see them cheerfully waving us in and out, bantering among each other as they log shift after shift.

And as I drove out of the parking lot, a car that had the right of way stopped and waved me through.

There is meaning in this difficult time. And we will glimpse meaning from time to time, as we bounce among the various stages of grief. We live in the hope of things not yet seen (Rom. 8:24) and we remind ourselves of the most remarkable blessings of the time yet to come (Rev. 21:1-4) every time we live “as if” that time infuses the day we live today.

It is not possible to avoid the waves of grief that wash over us during COVID 19. But we can live our values as we ride the waves of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. As we do, we will find ourselves landing at least momentarily on the shore of meaning.