Sure, I may (like so many others) have screwed my eyes tightly shut and stuck my fingers in my ears when reports of the Covid-19 virus first bled into headlines back in January. However, the health crisis became impossible to ignore when the UK went into lockdown mode on 23 March. Which means I’ve had, ooh, roughly five months to wrap my head around things?
That’s 21 weeks. That’s 148 days. That’s 3,543 hours, 212,598 minutes, and 12,755,917 seconds. I’ve spent the majority of that time reading Covid-19 death tallies, googling face masks, social distancing like a pro (being an introvert has its uses at last), and, of course, watching Boris Johnson’s press briefings.
Essentially, I’ve been engaging with news of the virus on a daily basis. And yet, somehow, it still manages to take me by surprise. I’ll be walking the dog with my partner, chatting about a Netflix true-crime series or some such basic shit, when the weight of it all will suddenly hit me and force me to stand still for a moment.
“What’s wrong?” my partner will ask.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” I’ll reply, my heart pounding and voice uncharacteristically shrill. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Can you believe this is happening?”
Sometimes, I can go for days without having what I like to call a Covid-ential crisis. Life will seem normal – as normal as it can, considering – and then I’ll realise that grabbing a face mask to pop to the shops has become second-nature. That I haven’t seen my dad since Christmas. That I spent Mother’s Day waving at my mum from her driveway. That I haven’t had all my friends together in one room since… well, since god knows when.
That, during this strange time, the magnolia tree outside my window has gone from bare branches, to pink blossoms, to bright green leaves. I catch myself staring at it when I should be working, wondering where the year has gone. Grieving for all the plans that have been cancelled, all the loved ones I haven’t hugged, for all the tiny ordinary moments that have been lost.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? I am grieving. I’m grieving for purely selfish reasons, of course – not just the thousands who have lost their lives to this virus, but the life I had and the life I was planning. I’m still grieving, however. Which explains why, whenever I do stop for a moment, I’m overwhelmed by that flood of shock and confusion afresh each time.
Searching for help online, I stumbled across an age-old Twitter thread that once went viral. In it, Lauren Herschel shares an analogy she learned from her doctor, which helps people express how their feelings change over time.
It goes a little something like this: grief is a box with a ball in it and a pain button on one side. In the early stages, the ball is big and will frequently hit the pain button – sometimes so much that it can feel like you can’t stop it.
But as time goes on, the ball gets smaller.
It doesn’t disappear completely and when it hits the pain button, it’s just as intense, but generally, it is easier to get through each day.
Psychotherapist Michelle Scott at The Recovery Centre (TRC) agrees with my read of the situation, noting: “The trauma of Covid-19 is somewhat like grief. When someone dies, it is natural to grieve, and we are all vaguely familiar with the first five stages of grief (anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance). In a way, we are all experiencing a loss – a loss of our old lives and the things we took for granted such as travelling abroad, a quick trip to the shop or hugging a friend.
“Our old lives have been abruptly replaced by a new normal, one that we didn’t ask for, and one where many people have lost loved ones to Covid during this time, so might be grieving for those individuals as well.”
Scott adds: “We are going through a collective grieving process, and therefore it’s natural that we will cycle through the different stages of grief. A lot of people don’t realise that these stages aren’t linear – you can go from anger to acceptance to depression to bargaining, and then repeat all over again.
“There might be days where we are very aware of our new normal and accept it for what it is, and then other moments where we find ourselves in total disbelief that this is happening and cannot comprehend that this is real life. Everyone will process this in their own way and at their own pace.
“With grief, the final stage is finding meaning, which can be hard to do when we still don’t have all of the answers. However we can help ourselves in the meantime by finding parts of our life that it feels safe to be present in. Mindfulness is one way to do this. Physical activities can help us be in the moment. Connecting with friends can fire up our social engagement system and help us to be part of something real.”
Like so many others, I haven’t allowed myself the time I need to process my feelings over the pandemic. Perhaps on some level, I’ve been keeping my feelings buried under all the banalities of buying toilet paper, cleaning the kitchen, attending my meetings because it feels like I’m keeping myself… safe, somehow.
As Scott says, though, burying my feelings isn’t the way to do this. And so I’m making a point of taking stock of my emotions, talking about how I’m feeling, and acknowledging what’s happened. I’m allowing myself to think small and be a little selfish, turning my gaze inwards rather than outwards. I’m telling myself it’s OK to feel however I feel.
Above all else, I’m trying to be mindful and exist in the moment. Because, all too soon, those magnolia leaves will begin to yellow, and brown, and fall. Soon, the branches will be bare again. Soon, it will be another year entirely. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to spend the rest of my 2020 in a state of shocked numbness, so I’m going to do something about it.
Hopefully, this may encourage others to do the same.