Exploring the Coronavirus through the 5 stages of grief
Working at home. Same routine day after day. This time of self-distancing and social isolation has me remembering the movie, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray, playing cynical Phil Connors, the weatherman at a Pittsburgh TV station, experiences the same day, February 2, over and over, and he is desperate to change this reality. As a psychologist, I believe that he is going through what appears to be the stages of grief as described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. While not always linear, these stages have been seen when people are grieving everything from illness to loss of a job. Sounds crazy, right? Watch the movie. One day lived over and over. I am telling you, these stages are embodied in the struggle he goes through along with a lot of hilarious comedy.
Think about how these stages are being played out in our current stay-at-home climate due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, when we are often spending the same day at home, over and over. We are learning to live with what we have lost. Even at first glance, we have lost a lot—control, a sense of independence and the excitement of change in the every day. Others’ losses may be much deeper, like losing a job, getting sick or even losing a loved one. This article cannot begin to touch that kind of grief. However, in a small way, many of us in our “stay at home” routine are dealing with a kind of sadness, the kind of everyday loss and malaise which should be recognized as grief. Since any movie with Bill Murray can make you feel better, I tried to think about how this movie might enlighten my approach to this COVID-19 lifestyle.
First, Phil cannot believe what is happening and assumes that each morning things will change when Sonny and Cher’s song, “I Got You Babe,”… wakes him up again! The same greetings from other bed and breakfast guests, the same speeches as the Groundhog comes out on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney and the same TV crew banter. Of course, the same prediction of six more weeks of winter. He is baffled; he cannot believe that this is happening. This is denial. There are days I still wake up after many weeks of social distancing and stay–at–home orders and I cannot believe it either. Some people have been in denial so much that they believe that this pandemic is a hoax or it is not as dangerous as the experts have said. Some continue to do what they have always done without wearing a mask or they insist the government should open businesses, thinking that the virus will miraculously go away.
Most of us are in a form of denial when we wake up starting our daily routine to find that we are stuck in a “stay–at–home” world. “I think I will go to the store today. No, I just went yesterday.” “I need to get new folders from the office; no, I will just use the empty box as a filing cabinet.” No office banter (ok, except on Zoom), no outside plans. Even something as simple as driving to work or walking past the bagel shop, lunch out with colleagues and the run into Hallmark to get a card on the way home, can be perceived as a loss. Denial is, in part, caused by the inability to accept the losses an if we don’t move from denial, we get stuck.
After many days of experiencing the same Groundhog every day, Phil enters the anger stage. Phil tries a lot of things to end this day— he is rude to his old high school acquaintance, Ned Ryerson, the nerdy insurance salesman; he overeats every caloric food at the diner (oh to be able to eat donuts and pancakes every day – without consequence); and he even takes a bag of money from an armored car, all with no effect. How many of us have struggled to stay away from our refrigerator or yelled at a spouse for no reason? We all start to feel angry when we cannot change something about our lives, especially things about which we have no control. We take it out on others and blame them, all the while becoming less rational.
Then, as often happens with grief, the next stage of depression sets in. Phil is desperate to end his existence and does very reckless things like driving on railroad tracks and even driving right off a cliff with the famous Groundhog sitting in his lap. He is hoping upon hope that something will change, and his nightmare of repetition will end. Of course, even these outrageous actions do not change the course of his existence—he always wakes up to the same day in the morning. Even though there are many things to like about working at home and being near family, some people in this environment get depressed, feel overwhelmed and want to run away, including engaging in self-destructive behaviors. Like Phil, we find out that these behaviors do not change what we cannot control.
We move to bargaining, the fourth stage—the classic example is, “What if I try to be a good person, God—can I end this day (or this circumstance)?” It is usually not something the person is willing to change, but in exchange for a new lease on life, the bargain is offered. In Phil’s case, he does not really bargain but he does try to cheat his fate by becoming manipulative and self-centered. He tries to persuade his TV producer, Rita, played by Andie McDowell, into disclosing more about herself so that he can make himself into someone she would find desirable. He finds out her favorite drink, sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist. (Yikes, who would have guessed that.) He at first laughs at her “French Poetry” major, then on his next try he quotes poetry to her. However, his disingenuous behavior doesn’t work. And being disingenuous, manipulative or trying to cheat the system rarely has a good outcome, either. Stealing a colleague’s idea, sleeping all day then claiming to have called fifty clients or being self-centered doesn’t feel good. Phil realizes this does not work and we should, too. One way to work through this stage is to try to figure out the meaning we could take away from this particular predicament. Phil finally accepts that every day will be the same but that he doesn’t have to be. This is his chance to actually grow as a person. He moves to the last stage, acceptance.
What does acceptance mean to Phil? It means treating every day as an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, like the homeless man he offers soup to every day, the kid he saves falling out of a tree and the man he does the Heimlich maneuver on at a restaurant. He becomes kinder, bringing coffee to his TV crew, and soliciting their suggestions. He becomes philosophical, learns to ice sculpt and takes piano lessons. He ends up as a guest pianist in the local band which performs at the Groundhog Day celebration for the people of Punxsutawney. He uses every day to the fullest, so much so that he wins over the love of his life, who “buys him” at a bachelor auction for charity at the end of the night.
My point? Once we move through denial, anger, depression, and bargaining, we move to acceptance. That means that once we are done grieving, which is a legitimate process, it is important to move on. We need to move forward where we can, to let go of what we cannot change and do what we can to live our life to the fullest even if that means staying home. We can find ways to help others where possible, learn new things, clean clutter, clean up our relationships, and yes, remember that loving ourselves means developing the ability to love others more fully. We can do better than staying with denial, anger or bargaining. We can hope for an end to the days of “stay–at–home” orders. And, in our world, we can hope that the Groundhog will predict an early (and safe) end to the COVID-19 quarantine.