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The World Needs to Collectively Grieve: Acknowledging the Pandemic Losses

Jennifer L. Lycette, MD

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September 03, 2021

Many of us, if not all, learned in our medical training about the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

I've been thinking a lot lately about grief during the pandemic and how it seems that what we might be missing is collective grief. But what could collective grief look like for the world? How do we even begin a conversation about it?

In my clinical practice, a wise social worker taught me a communication tool to serve as a framework for challenging discussions: "I wish, I worry, and I wonder."

If I apply this to COVID-19, I might say that I wish COVID-19 had never happened. I wonder how the world can come together to collectively grieve despite such a politically divisive climate. I worry about the added suffering of survivors and frontline healthcare personnel when the world refuses to hear their stories.

Because the gaslighting, so prevalent of late, is the opposite of witnessing.

Collective grief would mean acknowledging the losses. It would mean bearing witness. Bearing witness means creating a shared space for the pain. And most of us, being human, will try just about anything to avoid pain.

It's not an easy task to take up the collective burden of grief. To acknowledge the heaviness of it — the denseness — the shape of it — the visceral hollowness. But in the sharing of it, not letting it consume you.

I am grateful and fortunate to have not lost a loved one to COVID-19. But I grieve for the ways my children's lives have changed these past 18 months. The childhood losses they will never get back, both tangible and intangible.

I grieve for my patients who the pandemic has robbed of last chances — to take that bucket-list trip, visit that one person, or see that one special place one last time.

I grieve for my colleagues, physicians and nurses, who've suffered innumerable tangible and intangible losses on the front lines, many of whom may leave our field and never return.

Grief is not a stranger to me. As an oncologist, I navigate discussions of grief as a routine part of my job. But my first personal experience with grief occurred some years ago when I suffered a significant loss.

I vacillated between anger and depression for a long time. I could sense that acceptance was out there, far off, as if in a distant land. But to get there, I would have to travel through a dark tunnel, and in the tunnel were all the things I didn't want to feel. Pain. Sorrow. The reality of the loss.

But to reach acceptance, I would have to allow these emotions to exist. To face them. This made me angry. I didn't want to experience even more pain.

And for us human beings, anger is something we'll choose over pain and sorrow just about every time. Anger is easier. Anger is powerful. Anger doesn't make one vulnerable.

I don't remember the exact moment I decided to finally enter the tunnel. I remember the reason I decided to do it, though. I had a then-toddler child who needed a whole mother, not a broken one. I do recall what I thought as I (metaphorically) stepped into the tunnel. This is going to suck.

How long you spend in the tunnel is different for everyone. Days, weeks, months, even years. But no matter how long you're in it, you only emerge out the other side once you've felt the difficult feelings. This is what it means to grieve. It's hard work. No wonder we avoid it.

I recently listened to a podcast from last year, March 31, 2020, with grief expert David Kessler (who worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross), as interviewed by Brené Brown. Something he said stuck with me about why couples often separate after a loss. He explained that when two people grieve in vastly different ways, they often cannot reconcile those differences.

I wonder if this could explain at least part of the disparate national (and global) individual responses to the pandemic and the divisions they've caused. We're all grieving the "before times" in our own vastly different ways.

Within my own extended family, I've had difficulty understanding some of my relatives' behaviors. Some are still stuck in denial, evincing beliefs such as "It's not that bad" or "It's just the flu." Denial may allow some people to be more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation. When people face the direst of stakes, they're the most willing to believe false information. As an oncologist, I see this in cancer care, too.

As far as anger goes, we're flooded with daily examples of angry behavior splashed across news media and social media, from customers screaming at frontline workers to doctors accosted at school board meetings.

Bargaining is also rampant — such as the rationale that it's okay to take our masks off while eating in a restaurant if we put them back on to walk out of the restaurant.

Depression is widespread, with our youngest generation especially affected.

Because we are human, these things — denial, anger, bargaining, and even depression — are all perhaps easier to cope with than the pain over the immense losses of this pandemic.

But at some point, we're all going to have to go collectively through the tunnel. To process what we've lost. If we don't, I fear our society may never emerge out the other side.

Collective grief needs to be witnessed. Grief needs to be a communal process. If we don't acknowledge this responsibility, we lose part of our humanity.

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About Dr Jennifer Lycette
Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, is a rural community hematologist-oncologist, mom of three, and recovering perfectionist who's writing her way back from physician burnout, one word at a time. Her essays have been published in The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, JAMA Oncology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, The ASCO Post, and more. Connect with her on Twitter @JL_Lycette or her website.

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