Covid-19: Dealing with the five stages of grief

By Patience Mushamiri-Kuzviwanza
This article first appeared on The Daily Maverick on 12 May 2020

In many ways, the loss of personal freedoms under lockdown is like the death of someone close to us. We grieve the loss of those freedoms. Learning to accept those losses is part of the process of coping.

We have all probably at some point heard of the stages of grief, whether from our studies, on the internet or from casual conversation. These stages were coined by psychologist Dr Elisabeth Kübler- Ross. They have undergone some revisions, but the most common stages mentioned are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance (DABDA).

During a pandemic (and this will be the first one for most of us), one experiences a lot of emotions, most of them negative. There is panic, confusion, hope, anxiety, apathy, uncertainty, faith, expectation, fear. The list is endless. But the one thing most of us have in common is that during this particular pandemic we are grieving. We are grieving the loss of our normal lives, for some the loss of jobs, or potential dream jobs, the loss of conversation, the loss of stimulation from our surroundings like the sound of hooting cars and children laughing, the loss of routine, the loss of family, the loss of certainty. We are most likely experiencing this grief in stages, and for those in South Africa, the stages may be similar.

We may all vaguely remember hearing about Covid-19 in December/ January. At the time it seemed like a distant disease that was unfortunately affecting those in Asian countries. As time went on and cases of the virus were being reported on other continents we got a bit alarmed, but still felt it wouldn’t affect us. Then come late February/ early March, reports of cases of the virus in Africa and in South Africa started to emerge. At this point, a lot of us started to feel a bit concerned but again told ourselves we’d be okay. Myths were flying around like “it doesn’t affect/kill people of colour or younger healthier people” so surely we were safe.

Then health workers started encouraging social distancing, and we thought “it’s just a precaution. They’re being overly cautious”. And then our president came on to our TV screens on 23 March and announced that we would be going into a 21-day lockdown. “Okay,” we said, “he is just being cautious. It’s not so bad. We’ll be alright.” Denial.

The first week or so of lockdown was not so bad for some. For some, it was a much-needed break from crazy work hours, traffic and school. It would be over soon. But by week two we were all starting to feel the strain. A lot of us spent hours on social media, waiting daily, no, hourly for updates from the Department of Health (DOH) pertaining to how many cases were recorded that day, in which province, were there any deceased? And then it came: on 9 April the president announced an extension of the lockdown for a further 14 days after the initial 21 days, till the end of April, with even stricter restrictions. So this was in actual fact day one of lockdown all over again? Not day 15? We thought we only had six more days to go. And that was what was helping us keep it together. 

At this point we all went a bit crazy. It was crazy, unfair. How did they expect us to survive? We can’t restock on cigarettes, alcohol? We have to continue to work from home? With the kids? How did they think that was possible? And for those of us with jobs that had to be done in person? What were we supposed to do? We had told our customers and our workers that we’d be back on 16 April, what were we supposed to do now? They had better come up with a plan and fast because we needed to get back to normal life immediately! Anger.

And so the lockdown was extended, and now we didn’t know what day of lockdown we really were in. As the anger subsided and the wine started running out, fear really started to creep in. Would this end? This thing was really serious? When would we be allowed to go back outside? Would outside ever be the same?

Then on 13 April, Prof Salim Abdool Karim came on TV and gave a presentation explaining how the virus works, what the government has been doing to try and contain the situation and under what conditions they would recommend lockdown restrictions be loosened. At this point, we now stalked the DOH and NICD websites. We were on Twitter every second. Were we close to at least 45 cases daily as the Prof had explained? If we got there would they let us out a bit? Okay, we didn’t really need to go out the whole day, we’d be okay with some restrictions, but maybe a few hours a day? Could they please, please let us out even for a few hours? It wasn’t so bad that we had received salary cuts, as long as we still had salaries. We would still have salaries right? Bargaining.

The cases did not reduce, they appeared to increase. The number of deaths started to increase. Several companies and firms started building models of how the economy would be affected. Companies started organising Zoom meetings to inform employees that they’d have to go on paid/unpaid leave. Some let people go. Jobs started getting lost. Those in non-essential sectors realised it was going to be a while until they were allowed to go back to work.

How would they feed themselves? Their families? Those with hopes of trips, birthdays, new jobs, research. How were those things going to happen? Were those things ever going to happen?

On 23 April the president once again addressed the nation. We were told that the government had to find a way of balancing the health of the people of the nation with the country’s economy. So after a lot of consultation, the country would lift the lockdown restrictions in stages.

This meant that the lockdown would essentially not be ending any time soon? What the government had done was not avoid infections but buy themselves time to be able to handle the disease when infections increased. So we were all going to get the virus anyway? After all this, some of us would still get infected? Maybe die? We were not going to be able to see our family any time soon, we wouldn’t be able to go back to school? Not for a while? There was no hope. We realised the lockdown was not going to be lifted, not fully, and not for a while. It was gloomy, it was sad. Depression.

We are here now. We’ve been told we are in Level 4 of the lockdown and some industries can operate at limited capacity. We can walk/jog/run in the morning between 6am–9am within a 5km radius of our house. We can buy some winter clothing, can order takeaways via delivery etc. We are okay with this, we have accepted this. Or maybe it’s a bit of both. The hopelessness, the fatigue, the inability to see when this will end, the uncertainty. Either way, you’ll hear/ see very few rants on social media about how all of this is ridiculous. How the virus doesn’t exist or is not real. The coronavirus exists and we have to remain under these conditions of social distancing for the foreseeable future if we are to have a chance at fighting it.

It is best to not give in to feelings of despair by being appreciative of the efforts that are in place and understanding that it is for our own safety. We can take advantage of the things we can do in order to lessen the emotional and mental strain. Take walks and runs as often as we can, call our loved ones via video call, practice making new recipes with our families, enjoy time with our children, but also take time for ourselves when needed.

It is important to understand that grieving is not a linear process. One day you think you’ve reached acceptance, only to find yourself back at Anger again, and that’s okay. It is a process.

As long as we work together and try to make the best of the situation, we may be able to get through it faster than we expect. Acceptance.

Patience Mushamiri-Kuzviwanza

Patience Mushamiri-Kuzviwanza is a public health specialist with an interest in mental health, behaviour change communication and health policy. She holds an MA in Neuropsychology and is currently completing a Master of Public Health (MPH) at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she works in research at the SAMRC/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science (PRICELESS SA). To read this article on The Daily Maverick.

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