STILL HERE IN 2021
Exploring the Coronavirus
through the 5 stages of grief
I wrote this article almost a year ago about how the stages of grief were present in the losses we were experiencing as COVID-19 changed our lives. No one thought that we would still be socially distancing, wearing masks (well most of us anyway) and socially isolating in 2021. In celebration of the actual Groundhog day this month, we continue our own deja-vu watching the movie, Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray playing cynical Phil Connors, the weatherman at a Pittsburgh TV station. Phil experiences the same day, February 2, over and over and is desperate to change this reality. As a psychologist, I believe that nothing could not be truer now than that what we are still dealing with the stages of grief as described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. While not always linear, the stages of grief have been seen when people are grieving everything from illness to loss of a job.
Watch the movie. One day is lived over and over. Like our lives today, the stages are embodied in the struggle Phil Connors goes through. We have lost the ability to move freely. We have lost the sense of independence and the excitement of change in every day. We have lost the sense of safety that used to surround us. This article cannot begin to touch the kind of grief that comes from losing a job, getting sick or even losing a loved one. 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, it is still worth thinking that this movie might enlighten anyone’s 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. Denial for most of us is over. I realize there are rural communities that persist in believing COVID-19 is a government hoax, but for anyone not delusional, the reality of over 400,000 fellow Americans who have died from this disease is undeniable. However, some people are in denial so much that they believe they do not believe the scientific experts and don’t need to wear a mask or they continue to gather in large groups while thinking that the virus will miraculously not affect them. Many of those who believed that have not survived to this year. Denial is, in part, caused by the inability to accept the reality of the losses and if we don’t move from denial, we get stuck.
After many days of experiencing the same Groundhog scenario 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? It is still a struggle after all this time. 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 have gotten depressed, felt overwhelmed and wanted 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 the next day and second 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 worked all day 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.
Some have adjusted to the new normal. Some people have used the time we have had to do just these things—become kinder, become more knowledgeable, become more health-oriented, become more spiritual. Others have cycled through a second round of grief stages, digging into their cocoons of denial, depression and self-destructive behaviors. It is not easy to stay positive in the face of extended social isolation, home schooling and even bouts of illness. But we can do better than staying with denial, anger or bargaining. We can accept the predicament, continue to stay positive, and hope for an end to these COVID-19 days. There is hope in the distribution of vaccines and a coordinated government response to the disease. And, maybe this year, we can hope that the Groundhog will predict an early (and safe) end to the COVID-19 quarantine.