A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that the discomfort we are feeling in the midst of the present Covid virus pandemic is grief. This makes sense since grief is our response to loss and we have lost so much. I am aware that different people are experiencing different levels of loss. I think of daily wageworkers around the world, who now cannot go out to make a living and have hungry families at home. I am grateful to be living in Singapore where the authorities have done much to cushion the impact of the need to stay at home. Still, most of us grieve the loss of many things. We grieve the loss of normalcy and there is also the anticipatory grief of not knowing if our lives will ever be normal again.
In the same article, the HBR editorial staff turned to grief expert David Kessler for how to manage the grief we are feeling. Kessler is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on grief and has co-authored books with the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who, more than anyone else, pioneered the research on grief. Keller demonstrates how what we are going through is viewed through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance.
There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
All this rings true. What is interesting is that Kessler says that in this research he now believes there is a sixth stage in the journey through grief — meaning.
And, I believe we will find meaning in it. I’ve been honored that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s family has given me permission to add a sixth stage to grief: Meaning. I had talked to Elisabeth quite a bit about what came after acceptance. I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times.
Kessler still reminds us that we need to reach acceptance to find the peace that will enable us to begin to work on our situation, but he is saying that is not enough. We need to find meaning in what we are going through. As a follower of Christ, I can think of a few things that will help me to understand the “why” of what is happening.
First, we understand we live in a fallen world. We should expect creation to be “groaning” (Romans 8:22–25). The recent fires in Australia, the floods in Indonesia, the virus pandemic — the earth is reminding us that we are not all right. They are reminders that we live in a fallen world and that we need a Saviour. If things are too ok, we quickly forget this. In God’s mercy He periodically allows us upheavals to remind us that we need a Saviour. I am glad that followers of Jesus are involved in creation care and in healthcare, but all followers of Jesus can share the gospel. Things are not all right because humankind has walked away from God, but there is hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes I think God has to pry our hands from hanging on too tightly to this world so that we can both anticipate more the world to come and witness to it.
Second, upheavals in the world also function as birth pangs, reminders that time is marching on, God’s timetable is unfolding, and that Jesus is coming back soon (Matthew 24) to make all things new. Birth pangs are painful but they point to new life.
Third, our present struggles can serve to strengthen our faith — what do we really believe? What are the real non-negotiables of life? How do we nurture our faith in trying times? This is God-given time to obey injunctions like the following:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. (2 Peter 1:5–9 NIV)
And anchored in Christ for meaning, we can reach out and be a blessing to others. Interestingly, Kessler also suggests that “… it is a good time to stock up on compassion”. We are part of the same fallen world as everybody else. This is a tough time. We grieve with the rest of humanity. But we do not grieve without hope. Or without meaning.