The Other Curve

March 2020, Melbourne. Arriving home from the shops the other day, on the weekend before cafes stopped serving dine-in customers, it hit me that what I’m going through might be grief.

As I’d pushed my trolley around the aisles at the supermarket I’d kept my distance from other people, in case one of us sneezed and set off a chain reaction of fear or virus particles or both. At the checkout, I barely smiled at the assistant, when normally we’d have a quick chat. At the bulk foods shop, one of the staff asked me to wash my hands before I handled the glass jars full of spices and grains.

But outside on the street again, I walked past groups of people sitting outside cafes, talking and laughing and leaning into each other. I’m sure I raised my eyebrows and shook my head as I thought to myself, ‘Idiots. Don’t they realise?’

After I got home and unpacked the groceries, I sat on the couch, muted the news on the TV, and got angry with them all over again. How could they do that? They’re putting us all at risk. Surely they’ve seen the news reports?

I flicked off the TV and stared into space, contemplating what’s rapidly changing for me: The part of my work that relies on face to face contact – gone. Visits to my elderly mum and family in other states – gone. My local library where I spend lots of time – gone. Cuddles with my neighbours’ new baby – gone.

I felt a run of thoughts. ‘This is not fair.’ A deep breath. ‘Nah, it’s okay, it’s not really happening.’ Another deep breath. ‘Stuff it, I’m going to ignore it all too.’ Then I took a long, deep breath and faced facts. It’s real. It’s happening.

And in doing that, I began to see that underneath these reactions of mine – angry one minute, ignoring it all the next – a deep sadness was welling up inside me. That’s when I knew this was grief.

In the 1990s I was a palliative care nurse specialist, and in that work we understood grief as a normal response to loss. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s pioneering work on the grief process anchored my understanding of the big and unsettling emotions that many of the dying people I nursed and their families were going through.

Most of us probably know some version of Kubler-Ross’s five-stages model: denial (it’s not happening), anger (how dare this happen), bargaining (if I do this or that or something else I might get through this), sadness (it really is happening and I’m losing so much and it hurts), and acceptance (this is real, I need to commit to it and do it as well as I can). Later in life Kubler-Ross and a colleague of hers spoke about a sixth stage: meaning.

In the early days of this model of grief being published, sometimes it was misinterpreted. Some thought it meant that if you were grieving you’d go through those five stages in an orderly and tidy way. In reality, Kubler-Ross knew, it’s wilder than that.

The image that has worked best for me over the years is a U-shaped curve, the different stages of grief dotted along it. Picture a grieving person entering the curve from one side, and you see that they can be like a ball bouncing around inside it, hitting different stages randomly. One minute angry with their doctor or God or somebody, the next telling others there’s nothing wrong. Another time tearful, then calm, then angry again. All the while inching slowly towards relief and some sort of resolution on the other side of the curve.

A decade after my palliative care days, I changed careers and came across the grief curve again. This time I was working in the public service on projects to reform systems. I saw that when big changes are being made to an employee’s work, they go through a similar grieving process to a person who’s dying. Kubler-Ross’s work turned up in text books again, adapted to this new context of management. Here the potential losses were often mundane, but just as real – loss of a familiar work role, or status, or a desk by the window, or of colleagues moving on.

With Covid-19, the world as we know it is sliding away from us. We don’t know if we’ll survive it, or if our families will, or if all the people we love will. We don’t know if it’s bringing permanent change to what seemed stable certainties. Loss, both actual and potential, is all around.

What helps people move usefully through grief? This is some of what I learned from the different worlds of palliative care and organisational change.

  • Honest information about the situation, given kindly and clearly.
  • Clear, simple explanations about why things are happening the way they are.
  • Being upfront about what is and isn’t known.
  • Time to let things sink in.
  • Information patiently repeated so it can be fully absorbed.
  • Knowing what the next one or two steps are in dealing with the situation.
  • Having an outline of the likely full course of the situation.
  • Being able to express often-changing emotions in safe ways.
  • To have worries and concerns acknowledged by others as real for us.
  • The chance to come up with ideas for what will help the situation now and ahead.
  • Practical support.
  • Enjoyable connections with others.

Like any model, the grief curve is a simplified version of reality. But as we humans make our way into whatever the new world might look like in a year or two or ten, I’m finding it helpful in understanding my own and others’ shifting emotions, and what might be needed moment to moment.